Conveyor belts over the Kentucky River. After 6-year fight, big gravel quarry nears reality.

From a high overlook in southern Clark County, green fields cascade down to the Kentucky River along with the numerous waterfalls that spring from the limestone cliffs and trickle into the green waters of the Kentucky River.

Upriver, tourists explore Kentucky’s origin story at Fort Boonesborough State Park; a mile or two downstream, hikers get ready to walk through Lower Howard’s Creek, another early settlement that’s now a nature preserve of wildflowers and streams.

Folks around here cherish the river, the woods and the area’s potential for tourism. But they’re worried, as plans for a huge new gravel quarry —with conveyer belts that would be built over the Kentucky River — appear to be close to fruition. The six-year battle of the Southwest Clark Neighborhood Association appears to be coming to an end.

“The Kentucky River is such a valuable resource, but now they want to put more heavy industry right in the middle of it,” said Jeff Cress, the owner of Three Trees Kayaks, which operates less than a mile from where the Allen Company proposes its new quarry. Business has been booming the last couple of years as kayaking and canoeing gets more popular. “It just seems dangerous.”

A bit of history: Allen and Company, a road construction and asphalt paving contractor with several quarries in Central Kentucky, already operates a limestone quarry on the Madison County side of the river. Over the years, Allen has been buying up land on the Clark side, including a former quarry and farmland that climbs up from the river. a swathe of land across the river in Clark that housed a defunct quarry and apparently many more tons of limestone ready to be quarried. The Clark comprehensive plan had designated this corner for recreation, tourism and agriculture, and the planning commission denied Allen’s first request for rezoning the agricultural land into heavy industry. But the fiscal court overruled that decision in favor of the quarry. The neighborhood association sued all the way to the state Court of Appeals, but ultimately lost the case to stop the project.

In time, Allen agreed to mine underground and instead proposed a conveyor belt bridge over the Kentucky River roughly between KY 627 and Hall’s on the River. The permit to allow that will be discussed in a public hearing on Wednesday at 5 p.m before the Division of Mine Permits at 300 Sower Building in Frankfort. This hearing allows public comment, but no decisions will be made at it.

Clark resident Deborah Garrison has led the fight against Allen, which, according to the Kentucky Secretary of State, is tied to Steve Lawson, who with his father Leonard Lawson, owns numerous gravel and asphalt companies in Central Kentucky. They have deep financial and political pockets.

Allen Company officials did not return calls to the Herald-Leader.

She can list residents’ numerous worries: a conveyor belt that will carry stone just 15 feet above KY 418 to the river, ruined wells and foundations from increased blasting, more trucks on KY 627, air, noise and water pollution, and a halt to the area’s burgeoning tourism industry. Already, property values are falling, she said, and certainly for sale signs dot the houses on Athens-Booneboro Road.

“This would affect the historical integrity of our very historical area,” Garrison said. “We have so much more interest in the river and in hiking.”

Kathy Daniel has a house on the river just up from Hall’s. “Everyone I know already has a cracked foundation in their house,” she said. “It’s really sad they can take over the community like this.”

Tom FitzGerald, an environmental lawyer with the Kentucky Resources Council has reviewed the permit application, and called the fight a “classic conflict” between industry and residents. He thinks the two sides could find more reasonable alternatives, including possibly moving the gravel underneath the Kentucky River instead of over it by conveyor belt.

“There’ a lot that could be done to minimize any adverse impact to the area such as traffic and noise,” he said. “Hopefully, they will take a closer look at those alternatives.”

Let’s hope they do. The battle between green spaces and economic development has always been fraught in Kentucky, with industry usually winning. (It’s ironic, of course, that Lower Howard’s Creek, was a thriving industrial area that sent products like cornmeal and bourbon barrels down the Kentucky River to points south up until the Civil War.) Politicians prefer job creation over farmland preservation, and it’s easy to see how the tangible (jobs) wins out over the intangible (nature).

But at one time, Clark County created a comprehensive plan that valued the agriculture and recreational value of the southwest corner. Comp plans can be important road maps for development, but if you shred them the first time a company comes calling, there’s not much point. Once recreational land is ruined, it’s ruined forever.

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.