Op-Ed

Ky. voices: Lexington saves rural land, neglects its core

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One decade, three mayors and some $61 million later, it's time to review the Rural Land Management Plan and its Purchase of Development Rights program. When it was rolled out, the plan called for rural preservation measures to run congruently with an aggressive infill and redevelopment push within the Urban Services Area. The idea was simple: Decrease land supply outside the line while increasing supply within it.

The goal was to turn outward-spreading development inward and upward. Gone would be concerns over urban flight, blight and sprawl. The result would be a dense, vibrant urban core surrounded by the breathtakingly majestic natural beauty of horse country.

As a council member at the time, I was supportive. Today, I'm concerned because the plan is not being followed. Infill and redevelopment has not gotten anywhere near the $61 million investment — $26 million of it from the city — that has gone into saving rural land.

When it comes to "building upward," there are precious few local companies with the ties and resources to build up into downtown's skyline. Right or wrong, the great debate over the proposed CentrePointe development must send chills down the spines of potential developers. Fresh calls for new downtown building standards can be expected to further chill the air. If people want more say in the shaping of downtown, the government will have to include incentives along with its ideas and mandates.

While it is true that a fair amount of building has occurred in downtown in recent years, it is also glaringly clear that purely private-sector development is hardly diverse. Major builders will tell you they have no plans to do affordable-housing developments due to the economics of such ventures.

Without public incentives, downtown is doomed by the lack of active parks and affordable housing opportunities needed to make it family friendly. Federal grants like the one used to create the East End's Equestrian View community show how government incentives can indeed spur private developers to create the type of urban Lexington all can have a stake in, be proud of and call home.

Affordable-housing champions like BUILD have packed gyms and churches with citizens pleading for funds to improve the urban core's housing stock. "We don't have the money" is the pat answer they were given, only to watch the Urban County Council take out loans for millions for PDR.

Federal funds transforming sites of former housing projects have North Lexington communities teetering between great progress and the status quo. Critical block-by-block revitalization programs are needed to tip the scales.

Committee reports suggest a land trust fund endowed with $5 million annually can be leveraged to produce 336 new homes or renovate 1,400 existing ones yearly. Groups like REACH work admirably to eliminate vacant houses and lots. Yet, the real problem of having hundreds of inner-city homeowners too financially strapped to repair their homes remains. Neighborhood associations and code-enforcement officials have been forced to choose between citing homeowners on fixed incomes along with slumlords or cancelling needed comprehensive inspection sweeps altogether.

Public funding is about priorities. From the Great Depression to today, publicly funded construction projects continue to be a key way to jump-start an economy. If we're talking jobs and economy, funding redevelopment that benefits families and small businesses makes good dollars and sense.

With tough times comes scrutiny.

One of the criticisms of PDR is that it is welfare for wealthy horse farmers. One council member took that notion to task. In a recent article about council's approval of PDR funding, she said it was "really more about the family farm, many of them struggling, with farmers who need that money to buy equipment and keep their heads above water."

Yet, the same article featured one "farmer," a Versailles insurance company owner, who was slated to get one check for well over a half-million dollars. The capital gains tax on that one check alone ultimately equated to sending over $100,000 of borrowed city funds to Washington, D.C. Such a reality can be tough to swallow for those small businesses, non-profits and working families struggling to keep their heads above water, too.

The point is not to pit interests against each other, merely to promote balance. The Herald-Leader simply does not endorse any candidate who does not support PDR funding, and that endorsement matters. Thus, PDR has become the council's sacred cow. The time has come to deem infill and redevelopment its equal.

The plan calls for it. Time to follow the plan.

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