Vet Boone Creek plan the right way

A zip line tour of a remote and beautiful stream bed in southern Fayette County sounds like a great idea. It could deliver some of the very things that make up the idealized community we yearn for: eco-tourism, outdoor adventure that appeals to the young, well-educated people we want to attract, and economic diversification.

If only it weren't for neighbors who are afraid change will disturb their peace, enviros who think any development is bad and geeks who treat planning laws as if they were sacrosanct.

That's one way to look at the brewing controversy over an application by Burgess Carey's Boone Creek Adventures to develop "a world-class canopy tour, extensive trail system for hiking and biking and ... accommodations for overnight stays," in the Boone Creek Gorge.

Here's another way to look at it: In 1958, Lexington became the first city in the nation to create an urban services boundary, a landmark effort to curtail urban sprawl and protect the rural landscape.

Since then, Lexington and Fayette County have continued to develop safeguards to protect the rural landscape, including a Greenspace Plan and the Purchase of Development Rights Program as well as the comprehensive plan that is updated every five years.

It's been a tough fight but the result, for now, is a great small city surrounded by rural land rather than endless suburban sprawl. Anyone living in Lexington is only a few minutes from opportunities to hike, bicycle or otherwise explore one of the most beautiful rural landscapes in the world.

Given this history, the Boone Creek Adventures proposal has followed an odd administrative path. Changes in zoning designations — for example, from residential to commercial, office to light industrial — are made by the Planning Commission, which also oversees the county's comprehensive plan.

The Board of Adjustment rules on variances to uses permitted in the zones, such as modifying setback requirements, and whether "conditional" uses in a zone can be allowed at a specific location,

Zoning changes generally have a broad impact. For example, if a portion of the rural area is rezoned for subdivision or commercial development, it affects nearby land owners but also obligates the city to provide a host of urban services — police, fire, sewer, etc. — to that area. Changes also set precedents. If a video arcade is allowed in one residential neighborhood then it becomes very hard for the next neighborhood to hold the line.

The proposed development is in an area zoned agriculture/residential, a designation intended to protect agricultural activity and the rural environment. Some recreational activity is permitted but not amusement parks or rides, which is what Kentucky law considers zip lines to be.

So, good or bad, desirable or not, allowing such an intensive development in the rural area seems like a major zoning change, not just a variance in an existing zone. Remarkably, the city's planning staff sent the project not to the Planning Commission but to the Board of Adjustment, even though one of the conditions the staff attached was that Carey must get permits from the state to operate "zip lines, catwalks, suspension bridges and any other aspect of the project that may resemble an amusement park facility."

Carey's proposal is exciting and interesting but that doesn't mean Lexington should bend the process and ignore over half a century of successful land-use planning to approve it. The Board of Adjustment should turn the request down when it considers it next Friday, and then city leaders must work with Carey, the planning commission and staff to consider whether we can accommodate a wider range of activity in our rural area and, if so, how best to protect it.

There is a future in commercial recreational activity in the rural, agricultural portion of Fayette County. However, the process for proposing and approving it must be much more thoughtful and consistent than what we've seen in this case.