Questionable Planning or Progress? Lawsuit challenges Lexington Council’s boundary decision

LEXINGTON, Ky. – In the heartland of Kentucky, an escalating battle over land use planning is unfolding between the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council and the Fayette Alliance, a non-profit organization advocating for the horse industry and sustainable growth, along with a group of individual property owners. The tussle, brought to light through a recent lawsuit, promises to reshape the conversation around land development in Lexington.

In the spotlight is the Council’s decision to expand the Urban Service Area (USA), an action which the plaintiffs claim contravenes local planning regulations. This move, they say, threatens the integrity of land use in Fayette County, prompting a legal response that seeks not only to challenge the decision but also to scrutinize the legality of the Council’s overall approach to land use planning.

The lawsuit’s crux is the plaintiffs’ claim that the Council failed to comply with the necessary statutory and administrative requirements pertaining to land use planning when they expanded the USA in June, a contention that could significantly impact future land development decisions within the region. Fayette Alliance and the co-plaintiffs allege that the Council overstepped its bounds, approving questionable Goals and Objectives for the Comprehensive Plan that, they argue, will have sweeping ramifications for Fayette County’s environment and economy.

The debate is steeped in complexities that reflect the broader struggle between urban development and rural preservation, with implications that could reverberate far beyond the bounds of this particular lawsuit. The case opens a new chapter in Fayette County’s ongoing conversation around land use, a dialogue that engages questions about environmental stewardship, economic growth, and the future face of the community. As the litigation proceeds, all eyes will be on how this contentious issue is addressed in the courts, shaping the future of land development in Lexington and beyond.

The plaintiffs and their perspectives

In the complaint against the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council’s recent decision, several plaintiffs present diverse concerns about the potential ramifications. They argue the Council failed to abide by statutory and administrative requirements for research, analysis, and projections that must form the foundation of a land use comprehensive plan, as outlined in KRS 100.191 and KRS 100.193(2).

Among the plaintiffs, Billy C. Justice, a real estate broker specializing in horse farms, owns several properties across Lexington. He argues that the increase in the USA will decrease the availability of horse farms for sale, shrinking his customer base. Additionally, Justice worries about potential competition for a multi-story residential condominium project he has planned within the existing USA.

Carolyn Conley, another plaintiff, works in the equine industry and owns property at Griffin Gate Drive. Conley’s concerns revolve around her employment prospects, suggesting that an unjustified expansion of the USA could decrease the availability of work in the equine industry as smaller farms could be swallowed up by development.

David Powell, M.D., who owns and rents out residential properties in Lexington, worries that the USA expansion could exert downward pressure on both resale values of homes and rental rates. He also foresees potential tax increases to pay for the infrastructure needed to develop the expanded USA.

Robert James, a local farmer who owns an active farm of around 250 acres on James Lane and Military Pike, expresses his concerns about the issues arising from agricultural activities near residential developments. According to the lawsuit, James fears an increase in vandalism and traffic issues related to his agricultural vehicles, along with a likely decrease in the economic viability of his farm if surrounded or encroached upon by development.

James’ property along Military Pike has been enrolled in the Purchase of Development Rights Program (PDR) since 2006, according to county land records. This program pays landowners to permanently restrict their property to agricultural use in an effort to preserve rural lands. The property’s enrollment in the program came with a considerable sum of $579,270.

Plaintiff Robert James’ property on Military Pike is enrolled in the Purchase of Development Rights program, along with many of his neighbors. (LFUCG GIS data)

It’s noteworthy that many of James’ neighbors are also enrolled in the PDR program, according to LFUCG GIS data. This could potentially insulate him from the direct impacts of urban growth and casts some doubt on James’ opposition to the expansion, as his property would remain untouched regardless of the Council’s decision. This complex context makes James’ role in the lawsuit a significant point of intrigue.

Non-profit Fayette Alliance, Inc., dedicated to equitable growth in the LFUCG area, joins these individual plaintiffs, arguing that the Council’s directive lacks the statutorily-required research and analysis. They maintain that this not only jeopardizes their members, including the individual plaintiffs but also undermines their mission of advocating for smart, sustainable, and equitable growth in the community.

The plaintiffs’ united front against the Council’s decision speaks to a shared fear: that the abrupt expansion of the USA, done without requisite research, analysis, and respect for due process, could have long-term, negative implications for both individuals and the broader Lexington-Fayette community.

The Basis of the Lawsuit

The foundation of the plaintiffs’ grievances in the lawsuit is predicated on their claim that the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council failed to adhere to statutory and administrative guidelines for the research, analysis, and projections forming the base of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, according to KRS 100.191. They assert that the Council bypassed these mandates in their haste to impose their own “Goals and Objectives” to significantly augment the LFUCG’s Urban Service Area.

The plaintiffs allege that the Council’s decisions were not just inappropriate, but arbitrary and unsupported by substantial evidence. The primary concern is the unilateral increase in the USA’s area by 2,700 to 5,000 acres. This expansion, they argue, has been actioned without complying with the rigorous research, analysis, and projection procedures necessary for an informed decision on all elements of the comprehensive plan.

Moreover, the plaintiffs allege that the Council overstepped the statutory limitations of its power as per KRS 100.193(2). They maintain that the Council’s actions will adversely affect their individual and collective property rights, and the land use provisions outlined in the zoning map amendments without due consideration for the prerequisites of the comprehensive plan.

Beyond the question of process and authority, the plaintiffs posit that the Council’s decisions have potential real-world implications. They predict deleterious effects on local property values, rental rates, residential and commercial development, and employment opportunities in the equine industry.

The plaintiffs have brought multiple charges against the Council, premised on the argument that the Council bypassed procedural and statutory obligations, leading to a decision unsupported by substantive evidence. By so doing, they claim, the Council acted arbitrarily, jeopardizing the interests of the plaintiffs and the Lexington-Fayette community at large.

The lawsuit calls for a review of the Council’s actions against statutory requirements and their implications for the community. It highlights the perceived lack of due diligence, which, the plaintiffs argue, is a disservice to the community they are intended to serve.

Potential Impact and Intrigue

The lawsuit at hand and the Council’s actions could potentially have far-reaching impacts on the Lexington-Fayette community. The plaintiffs allege that the expansion of the Urban Service Area could undermine property values, jeopardize rental rates, and disrupt employment opportunities, particularly in the equine industry. Furthermore, the implication that the Council bypassed statutory and administrative procedures strikes at the heart of public trust, with potential implications for how the community perceives local governance.

One element of intrigue in this case revolves around Fayette Alliance’s past statements and the claims made in this lawsuit. The Alliance had previously asserted that expansion of the Urban Service Area wouldn’t result in decreased housing costs. Yet, this lawsuit implies a contradictory stance. Plaintiff Justice, for instance, fears that the expansion could lead to an increase in competitive residential developments, potentially affecting his property value. Such contradictions could raise questions about the Alliance’s credibility, and potentially impact how its arguments are received in future land-use debates.

Council member Preston Worley speaks at the June 1 Committee of the Whole meeting. (LexTV)

Adding another layer of intrigue is the June 2023 letter from Fayette Alliance’s counsel to LFUCG’s Department of Law. The missive suggests the possibility of allegations of conflicts of interest among Council members, hinting at depositions of those members in a legal proceeding. This letter was described as an act of “intimidation” by some Council members. Now that the Alliance has taken legal action, there could be lingering feelings of animosity between the Alliance and Council, potentially affecting their relationship in the future. These tensions would only be exacerbated if individuals council members were deposed by the plaintiffs.

This move could lead to a more contentious atmosphere in Council proceedings, especially regarding land use decisions. It also raises the question of how the Council will handle future lobbying from entities like Fayette Alliance. In the longer term, these tensions could significantly impact the dynamics of local governance and the process of decision-making on critical issues, such as land use and development.

In essence, the unfolding lawsuit promises not only to challenge the Council’s decisions but also to test the community’s faith in their local governance and the credibility of influential groups like Fayette Alliance.

What next?

As Lexington’s Urban Service Area expansion controversy heads to the courtroom, all eyes are on the unfolding lawsuit that brings a host of intriguing claims and potential implications. The plaintiffs — real estate broker Billy C. Justice, horse industry worker Carolyn Conley, residential property owner David Powell, M.D., and farmer Robert James — joined by the Fayette Alliance, allege that the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council failed to follow statutory and administrative procedures in their decision to expand the Urban Service Area.

Their grievances underline the potential for widespread impacts on property values, business prospects, and the local equine industry. Yet, it’s the lawsuit’s potential to disrupt the dynamics of local governance and influence future decision-making processes that adds an additional layer of intrigue.

The LFUCG has not yet responded to the lawsuit in court. In line with their policy, they have refrained from commenting on pending litigation.

As we look to the future, key points of interest include how the LFUCG will respond to the lawsuit’s charges, how the community will react to the unfolding drama, and the ultimate impact on the Alliance’s future lobbying efforts. Will the tension escalate in Council proceedings, or will this lawsuit bring about a more transparent and data-driven approach to land-use decisions? As these issues unfurl in the coming months, the ripple effects of this case could reshape the landscape of local governance and land-use planning in Lexington-Fayette for years to come.