Lexington should keep the focus inside

Lexington should relentlessly focus on achieving smart growth inside its urban boundary. Now is no time to siphon off public resources, private investment or civic energy with yet another fight about expanding the boundary.

And, yet, here we are again, on the brink of an admittedly new kind of expansion discussion, not even one year after the Urban County Council rejected, in line with public opinion, opening more rural land to development.

At the time of that vote last November, the council also fast-tracked “creation of a new process for determining long-term land use decisions.” The council didn’t want to wait for the city’s professional planners to spearhead this effort, so $150,000 was found to hire a consultant to lead a study that will recommend “the process.”

In addition to all its regular duties, the planning staff is still busy completing Lexington’s latest five-year comprehensive land-use plan. It would have been more logical to wait for completion of the comp plan before launching this new study. But, for reasons never really explained, haste was the priority. The council had only narrowly defeated a move to allow urban development in the rural area; imposing a deadline on the study (July 1, 2020) was perhaps viewed as a consolation prize for those who had pushed for expansion.

As the next step, Mayor Jim Gray is expected to appoint a committee. It will develop a request for proposals from consultants, oversee the study and presumably make recommendations to the Planning Commission for debate and possible adoption, then on the council which could reject, amend or approve.

The assignment — spelled out in Theme E, Goal 4 of the comp plan’s Goals and Objectives — is a bit vague but includes identifying “land for potential future urban development” and specifying “triggers, thresholds and timing” for adding land for urban development.

“Our guide for how to grow in a smart way” is how council member Jennifer Mossotti described what the council is seeking.

A tall order, so the makeup of the committee is critical. Members should understand demographics, economics and how to use data to make decisions. They should reflect Lexington’s diversity. Fayette County has some of the best agricultural soil in the world. The committee needs people who understand that the rural area is more than pretty views.

People interested in serving or nominating someone should contact the mayor’s office at mayor@lexingtonky.gov.

Some questions stand out:

Has the city made maximum use of the land within the boundary? Does it have an effective affordable housing plan? Has it achieved denser development that respects everyone’s quality of life and redeveloped underutilized corridors? Until the answer to those questions is yes — and that could take decades — any expansion should be hard to justify.

Should the city designate future expansion areas? No, at least not if the council is serious about keeping “infill and land use efficiency” as the primary objectives. The prospect of newly opened green fields would reduce the incentives for developers to pursue infill and redevelopment. Land prices would rise in future expansion areas beyond what working farms can afford.

More and more, Lexington residents understand that by promoting new (yes, denser, mixed-use) kinds of development, the city can grow and prosper without destroying irreplaceable farm land. Realizing that vision should be the focus.

This editorial was updated to make clear that the committee’s recommendations would first go to the Planning Commission and then to the council.