Property rights vs. protecting neighborhoods. How can Lexington manage competing interests?

Proposed town home site

Aerial view of 1847 Nicholasville Road site of a proposed zone change, to allow the construction of eight town houses.
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Aerial view of 1847 Nicholasville Road site of a proposed zone change, to allow the construction of eight town houses.

Urban County Council recently passed a resolution to impose a six-month moratorium on demolition and zone changes in the Pensacola Park neighborhood. It was a very close vote.

That action came at the request of neighborhood residents, who sought temporary protection while they pursued an Historic District (H-1) Overlay designation. Some property owners affected by the moratorium objected to the request on the grounds that the government should not use its power to tell property owners what they can and cannot do with their own property. This raises a good question: What do we mean when we cite “property rights” in Lexington?

Our individual property rights are governed primarily by our Zoning Ordinance and our Comprehensive Plan. These two complex documents contain regulations developed by our community over time to balance individual rights and overall community well-being. These documents recognize that what I do with my property affects my neighbor’s property. On a larger scale, they recognize that what happens in a neighborhood directly affects adjacent neighborhoods and, by extension, the whole community.

We elect and appoint citizens to government positions with the hope that they will listen to the community and do their best to construct and carry out laws and regulations that are the least restrictive possible while protecting our overall interests. These laws and regulations reflect our best thinking of the moment. They are subject to ongoing revision that is based on community engagement and input.

Our latest Comprehensive Plan emphasizes the need for increased infill and redevelopment, and it also emphasizes the need to protect existing neighborhoods. Both are seen as keys to continued economic growth and prosperity for our community.

Planning and zoning matters such as this moratorium demonstrate the potential tension between these two needs. The expressed needs and desires of an individual property owner to develop or redevelop a property may be in conflict with the needs and desires of a neighborhood, just as the needs and desires of a neighborhood may be in conflict with the interests of the overall community. When controversy about a specific proposed change arises, our challenge is to make decisions that carefully balance the competing interests of individual property owners, neighborhoods, and the well-being of our overall community. These decisions inevitably involve judgment calls about which reasonable people may disagree, as the close vote on the moratorium indicates.

We anticipate continued growth in our population. The boundaries of Fayette County are fixed. Those two facts combine to assure that many proposals for development and redevelopment will involve competing interests. I hope that decision-makers and community members will continue working together and use their best judgment to balance these competing interests, and that everyone involved will recognize and understand the need to do so.

Steve Kay is Lexington’s vice mayor.