Ky. Voices: A locked-up landscape risks losing public support

The Boone Creek property that Burgess Carey wants to open to canopy tours includes ruins of a mill built circa 1803. The project is sparking a larger debate about rural preservation.
The Boone Creek property that Burgess Carey wants to open to canopy tours includes ruins of a mill built circa 1803. The project is sparking a larger debate about rural preservation. Herald-Leader

The controversy that the Boone Creek proposal has sparked is unfortunate, but it may be a necessary debate.

What I find most distressing as an ardent preservationist and informed observer is the "friendly fire" between different schools of preservation: different generations with different relationships with the outdoors.

Both deserve recognition as proponents of preservation, but it looks to me like Preservation 1.0 is denying Preservation 2.0 the right to innovate what we can do with protected land.

More than a feud between neighbors, it is a very important conversation about public access to the Bluegrass and about whether we have the flexibility to foster and promote responsible and innovative economic development in the rural service area.

Let's be clear: both sides agree that land in the rural service area must remain protected. It is my understanding that the Boone Creek project to offer zip lines and canopy tours does nothing to endanger this priority. Many of the project's opponents have conceded that it is a great idea. So where is the problem?

The questions raised seem to be the following: What exactly are we protecting with our zoning ordinances? From whom and for whom are we protecting it?

Thus far, the controversy has been focused on zoning ordinance interpretations rather than an informed discussion of what these laws are meant to accomplish in the first place. This has done the public and the Boone Creek proposal a disservice.

Why is this debate so critical? Because how we resolve it will determine what kind of a community we are and what we hope to become.

As protector of the state's global brand and a world heritage monument, Lexington is in an important and unique situation. What is challenging about this responsibility is something pointed out recently by Town Branch Commons juror Aaron Betsky: Almost all of the Bluegrass is off-limits in private hands.

Like an Old Master canvas behind a velvet rope, you can look at the Bluegrass out a car window or on foot or on a bike (if you dare), but you are not welcome to cross the fence line. It is publicly subsidized but privately held parkland.

In that sense, Preservation 1.0 has been very successful. Lexington has the oldest growth boundary in the nation and has spent millions purchasing the development rights of rural landowners so that prime portions of the Bluegrass remain rural in perpetuity.

However, this approach alone does not fully serve the public good and is economically unsustainable. Its rigidity squashes worthy economic development and unduly limits public access.

For example: When a successful local entrepreneur sought to build a livestock market on a highway exit with private funds, he was defeated by an overly rigid public-approval process. Approval would have guaranteed hundreds of jobs and the largest stockyards in the eastern United States recommitted for the long term in Fayette County.

Just as Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton are premier markets for the equine industry, this would have been a showplace for the livestock industry and it would have strengthened and diversified our agricultural economy. Preservation 1.0 failed to serve Lexington's long-term vital interests.

We now have an eco-tourism entrepreneur who wishes to expand a business to give improved public access to an exquisite palisaded gorge within earshot of the interstate. What is being built on Boone Creek is exactly what the city has contemplated putting at Raven Run, our beloved, but overused, rural sanctuary overlooking the Kentucky River.

Yet Preservation 1.0 says that this positive private investment cannot happen.

This kind of opportunity is not one we can afford to lose. Again.

We cannot thrive economically by spiking local entrepreneurs when they attempt to enhance our rural economy in full alignment with preservation goals and agree to manage the land responsibly.

It is shortsighted to insist that all rural land have recognized traditional farm enterprises. Markets change and evolve, and our governing regulations need to accommodate new approaches so long as they adhere to long-term imperatives. Otherwise, we fail to adapt the rural economy and thereby put the land at greater risk.

It is a false choice to say that all rural land must conform to a traditional rural business template, otherwise it will devolve into strip malls.

We must make the stewardship of our landscape the overriding priority and not fall into the morass of approving or rejecting business plans. We must also seize every chance we can to slake the public's thirst for responsible access to this extraordinary land. Otherwise they may sour on its preservation. That would be a major disaster.