Politics & Government

Tom Eblen: Rural land use requires balance

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

A city task force created 15 months ago to consider zoning-law changes to allow more recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County recently made its report to the Urban County Council.

The Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment Work Group did some good work, but a broader public discussion is needed before council takes action. Plus, there is an elephant in the room that must be dealt with.

Here is the central question: what are the best ways to protect, preserve and enhance Lexington’s unique rural landscape and the economic models needed to sustain it in the future?

Lexington adopted a rural land management plan in 1999 to keep suburban sprawl from pushing out agriculture and damaging sensitive natural areas along the Kentucky River and its tributaries.

The work group thought more specificity was needed, and it has proposed a detailed list of dos, don’ts and maybes regarding rural land use. But some of its recommendations would further re- strict recreation and tourism rather than expand them.

In deciding what should and should not be allowed, the work group made subjective judgments that went beyond whether a use or activity would harm the land or neighbors. If state law allowed the city to regulate agriculture as closely as this plan regulates everything else, farmers would howl.

Agriculture is a big, important business in Lexington, and farmers are justifiably concerned about anything that might encroach on them. But agriculture has always been evolving. Farmers should be wary of banning or restricting low-impact activities they may need someday to make a living on their land.

Like it or not, the work group has been tainted by a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey, who wants to create an outdoor recreation center at his Boone Creek Anglers Club, and his neighbor, former Council member Gloria Martin. Each has many fired-up supporters, and the rhetoric and behavior on both sides have been over-the-top.

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton formed the work group she helped lead in response to the Boone Creek dispute. But the group often seemed hostile to Carey and tried to exclude him from the dialogue. Only one of the group’s 15 members ever accepted Carey’s invitations to visit Boone Creek to see what he wants to do.

Carey wants to turn his property, which is unsuitable for agriculture, into a low-impact outdoor recreation area featuring guided “canopy tours” on platforms and zip lines built in the trees.

If well-designed and regulated, Carey’s facility could be a terrific asset for Lexington. Located on Old Richmond Road just off Interstate 75, the traffic impact would be far less than, say, the city’s Raven Run nature park on Jacks Creek Pike.

Most objections to the project by Carey’s opponents have been over-wrought. To hear some of them talk, allowing zip-lines in tree tops is tantamount to building a Six Flags amusement park.

During her dozen years on the Council, Martin was an outstanding advocate for rural land preservation at a time when suburban development was running amok. But her battle against Carey has looked more like an elitist “not in my back yard” campaign.

Carey made it easy for people to attack him, though, by flouting zoning processes that have served Lexington well for decades. After the Board of Adjustment turned down his request for a zoning variance, he ignored the city planning staff’s advice and proceeded with building a smaller canopy-tour course.

Carey and his lawyer, John Park, have argued that his fishing club has as much right under current zoning law to offer canopy tours as horse farms have to offer farm tours without a permit. But the Board of Adjustment rejected Carey’s appeal and is considering sanctions against him.

The battle over Boone Creek has gotten so nasty that it may well end up in court. But what is needed is a compromise that puts common sense ahead of politics and personalities. That is because Carey’s project is the right idea in the right place at the right time.

Boone Creek Outdoors and projects like it could show people the enormous potential of developing the Kentucky River Palisades corridor as an environmental education and outdoor recreation area. Under the work group’s recommendations, it could be allowed.

Low-impact outdoor recreation opportunities along the Kentucky River could become a big economic engine for Lexington. They also could generate the kind of money needed to protect the Palisades from harmful development and the invasive plant species that are rapidly destroying its fragile ecology.

Besides, unless the Boone Creek fiasco is resolved in a way that removes the perception of politics, it will be hard to make progress on these broader issues of rural land management that are essential for Lexington’s future.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader