Need hard answers for zone change

Members of the Urban County Council asked good, hard questions about a proposal to change the zoning on land set aside for economic development during a special meeting in early December.

They should keep it up in the new year, and insist on equally good, hard answers.

At issue is the economic development zone, created in 1996 for land within Fayette County’s urban services area where jobs could grow.

Now, 20 years later, the over 500 acres — about 350 acres off Newtown Pike near Interstates 64 and 75, and 200 acres off Polo Club Boulevard near Hamburg — that were set aside remain undeveloped.

In 2014, a work group that included the property owners, planning staff and others began meeting to figure out why there’s been no activity and what to do to fix that.

It was that group’s recommendations, with tweaks from the planning commission, that the council heard on Dec. 1. They include expanding permitted uses in the economic development zones to include restaurants (including drive-thru), hotels, motels, apartments and nursing homes.

The theory is that businesses no longer want to be isolated in office parks with few amenities, so opening some economic development land — 20 percent in this case — for accessory or supportive uses could spur activity.

It’s disturbing on the face of it that so many of the proposed expanded uses on this land — intended to attract good-paying, knowledge-economy jobs — would only add more of the low-end jobs that already leave too many unable to afford the most basic necessities.

Beyond that, as Council member Amanda Bledsoe pointed out, is the question of which comes first, the good-job-creating tenant or the low-wage accessory use?

That’s not specified, inviting a scenario in which the developers thrive by selling or leasing land for accessory uses but the community never sees any higher-paying jobs.

Council member Jake Gibbs wondered if giving up 20 percent of economic development land for other uses would just amp up future pressure to open up more farmland for economic development. Economic development professionals routinely worry that there’s not enough land available in the county for job growth.

Concerned about creating generic highway development that could detract from Fayette County’s scenic beauty, Vice Mayor Steve Kay asked if the accessory uses could be in the center of the developments rather than on the periphery. That was proposed, planning director Jim Duncan said, but the work group rejected it.

Council members also raised more fundamental questions about the local government’s role in attracting more and better jobs. Lexington relies heavily on payroll taxes to fund its operations; so council members, who must approve a budget each year, are keenly aware that adding low-end service jobs is not the key to local prosperity.

The council will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes Feb. 9.

While there’s good reason to be frustrated that the economic development zone has produced so little in 20 years, council members must insist on data not just opinions, research rather than casual observations, as they consider this proposed change.

Fayette County’s Bluegrass acreage is a finite resource. We’ve benefited economically and culturally from a long history of thoughtful, forward-looking land-use planning that’s allowed a vital small city to thrive within a world-class agricultural landscape. The council must continue that tradition as it considers this proposal.