Op-Ed

Economic potential is limitless if we protect our agricultural base

A runner completed the last leg of the 200-mile Bourbon Chase on the Legacy Trail last weekend. A proposed zoning amendment would allow more recreation in Fayette County's rural areas while protecting agricultural uses. The Planning Commission will begin discusing the changes this week.
A runner completed the last leg of the 200-mile Bourbon Chase on the Legacy Trail last weekend. A proposed zoning amendment would allow more recreation in Fayette County's rural areas while protecting agricultural uses. The Planning Commission will begin discusing the changes this week. Herald-Leader

Lexington has many factories made of finite Bluegrass soils and limestone karst topography, not bricks and mortar.

They manufacture unique agricultural products that are limited in supply and demanded by markets all over the world, from horses and cattle to food and other crops.

Lexington is the capital of a signature industry that's inherently tied to and dependent upon a breathtaking and vulnerable resource.

Unlike many forms of manufacturing, our factories succeed by existing in a state of harmony with the environment. And the results are profound.

The sheer economics of Lexington farms are staggering and wide-ranging, having a $2.4 billion annual impact on our diverse, local economy and supporting one in nine jobs in the community.

These numbers are reinforced by the recent Keeneland September sale which grossed $279 million in revenues, Fayette County having the highest farm values in the state, and our farms generating millions of dollars in the finance, law, real estate and construction businesses.

While these facts are powerful, they don't begin to tell the complete story of what our farms mean to Lexington.

Their ability to produce the world's best livestock, among other commodities, is not only an economic imperative, but a unique touchstone that helps define our culture, and specifically how we relate to one another and to the world.

For example, last year alone over a million tourists visited our farms and the 2,800 acres of rural park land in Fayette County.

Despite our current strengths, we are beginning to better connect the dots and leverage our working farms in ways that go beyond the fence rows and directly impact our day-to-day lives.

It's about ag-tourism. If done right, the economic and quality-of-life multipliers are endless.

Our community has been at this effort for a while, as evidenced by our burgeoning Farmer's Market and Kentucky Proud Food Show, hosting frequent fitness events along our scenic rural byways, such as the Bourbon Chase and the 2010 World Equestrian Games and the upcoming 2015 Breeder's Cup Festival, just to name a few.

At a public hearing Thursday, our Planning Commission will take up a set of proposals designed to build on this momentum.

As part of this initiative, Vice Mayor Linda Gorton led a diverse community stakeholder group that met over 20 times during the past two years to review our zoning ordinance and refine it to achieve a balance between promoting public access and recreation and protecting farmland.

The committee's recommendations are included in the Recreational Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment, or ZOTA, that is coming before the Planning Commission.

The guiding principles of the committee's ZOTA recommendations were upholding our longstanding land-use plans, reinforcing the "agricultural intent" of our rural zones, establishing an "ag-nexus" between the farm and the proposed ag-tourism activity, proposing new outdoor recreational opportunities for lands not suitable for agriculture, and protecting our sensitive environmental assets.

Without these principles in place, the character of the Bluegrass would be compromised in a blind pursuit of "tourism" and "access" — forever altering and diminishing our rural landscape.

Therefore, to achieve the goals of the ZOTA, several tourism uses are proposed for the core agricultural areas, including organized farm tours; farm-to-table restaurants; farm produce stands; corn mazes and orchards; wineries; and the opportunity for a comprehensive, non-commercial trail system in the public rights-of-way along rural roads. That's in addition to the diverse agricultural activities already taking place on our farms today.

And yes, canopy tours, camping, fishing, and other forms of commercial outdoor recreation are recommended for land not suitable for intensive agriculture, such as the steep slopes and gorges of the Kentucky River Palisades, rural business sites, buffer zones and park land — provided that planning processes are respectfully followed and sensitive natural resources are protected.

These recommendations are important, as they uphold our zoning principles and, in turn, the land-use climate essential to attracting local and international investment from the agricultural and real estate sectors to Lexington.

Importantly, they advance the goal of public access without compromising the integrity of our zoning ordinance, our urban growth boundary, rural landscape or Lexington property values.

Fayette Alliance applauds this body of work, as it supports our agriculture, high-tech and health-care-based economy; advances our unique way of life; and sustains an authentic form of tourism that makes Lexington, well, Lexington.

We will urge the Planning Commission to approve the ZOTA committee's recommendations at the public comment hearing on Oct. 23, and in the weeks to come at city hall.

This is a momentous opportunity to protect and leverage our agrarian factory floor while pursuing exciting new tourism and recreational uses in our rural area.

Under this strategy, Lexington's potential is limitless.

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