Opening up rural land for tourism; zoning plan strikes good balance

Proposed zoning changes will allow more rural businesses like this roadside vegetable stand.
Proposed zoning changes will allow more rural businesses like this roadside vegetable stand.

Survey after survey shows that a vast majority of people in Lexington want to protect the iconic rural landscape that surrounds our city.

That part is easy. What's difficult is working out the subtle interplay of government regulation, private investment and recreational access to achieve that goal.

That was the aim of an effort to update Lexington Fayette County's zoning regulations to allow more agritourism and ecotourism.

Vice-mayor Linda Gorton and Don Robinson, a horse farmer and former chairman of the planning commission, co-chaired the work group that undertook this huge, contentious and sometimes tedious task. Tuesday, they presented recommendations that grew out of nine months of work.

The group — also including non-equine farmers, homebuilders, wineries, economic development and tourism — expanded potential uses in the rural area while providing a process to protect it.

Zip lines and bicycle trails, recreational outfitters and country inns are contemplated where they weren't before.

The planning commission and the council must both vet and act on these proposals. There will be changes, additions and deletions, but the work group has offered a roadmap toward a vital, more accessible rural area that should be followed.

Developers and others who want to open businesses will complain that the process to get them approved is too time-consuming, expensive and restrictive. Rural preservationists will worry that more people, and the traffic, noise, litter and other wastes they bring, will disrupt the work of farming and damage the soils.

The soils are critical. These debates are not just about landscape aesthetics. They are about preserving some of the world's most productive soils — created over thousands of years — and their capacity to support livestock and crops, a resource that will only become more valuable.

Few things, at least in Fayette County, stir as much emotion as zoning conflicts. Property rights, economic development, 200 years of commitment to the land and a profound emotional attachment to it, all come into play. Zoning balances these sometimes conflicting concerns while protecting the long-term interests of the community.

That balance is achieved in part through defining new uses as conditional in certain zones. That means they are allowed in that are but only after the proposal has been reviewed professionally and in public.

For example, concerts are a proposed conditional use in all the agricultural zones. Conditions would likely address the hours they can operate, the power of sound systems, and provisions for dealing with traffic and parking. There is almost no sewage system in the rural areas so the capacity of septic tanks will be an issue, and a limitation. Restaurants, for example, make significant demands on septic systems while roadside farm stands don't.

Fayette County's rural area is too vast to become public parkland so it's absolutely essential that it support businesses — be they farms raising horses, cattle or vegetables, vineyards and wineries, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns or canopy tours.

It is important, too, that city dwellers be able to connect with the rural area in a more active way than a Sunday afternoon drive.

There's been a lot of progress in recent years. The Legacy and Town Branch trails and McConnell Springs have all come on line, Raven Run has expanded and has a new visitor's center, there's a growing and active cycling community, and tens of thousands of people annually tour Thoroughbred farms.

But we need more.

To get it, government must mediate the conflicting demands that inevitably arise when town and country meet. That's what zoning is all about. When it's good, it protects the community and ensures the future. This is good.