Lexington’s Growth Debate: Two Visions Clash ahead of Public Input Session

For today’s public input session regarding Lexington’s growth, we present two contrasting perspectives on the expansion of the Urban Services Boundary (USB). On one side, Brittany Roethemeier, Executive Director of Fayette Alliance, argues for a cautious approach, advocating for data-driven growth and demanding a minimum expansion of 2,700 acres. Roethemeier raises important questions about the costs, housing demands, and available land. On the other hand, Ray Daniels, Chair of Lexington for Everyone, calls for a more substantial expansion of up to 5,000 acres, emphasizing the need to address rising home prices, job growth, and population decline. These op-eds represent two distinct viewpoints shaping the future of Lexington, and today’s public hearing invites community members to weigh in on this critical decision for our city’s growth and development. The order of the op-eds was selected by coin flip–Daniels is up first:

Community deserves more than the minimum: Workgroup should review all suitable land for inclusion into land use boundary

By Ray Daniels, Lexington For Everyone Board Chair

Hope. Growth. Opportunity. Those are the building blocks for a healthy and vibrant community. And thanks to the strong leadership of the Council, Lexington’s future is being planned with those goals in mind.

The Goals and Objectives for the Comprehensive Plan, which guides how Lexington will grow in the future, were strengthened in a 13-2 Council vote. It was the right decision because it will address the needs of all segments of our community. Among the goals was the mandate to make available 2,700 to 5,000 acres for homes and jobs.

A volunteer workgroup, along with support from the Planning Commission staff, now has the task of identifying which acres will be recommended to the Planning Commission to be included for development within the land use boundary (Urban Service Area). Lexington for Everyone urges the workgroup not to fall short of that goal by simply doing the minimum.

Currently, that workgroup has identified only one area for homes and jobs that meets the minimum acreage and wants to end its work. We ask them to consider other areas of land that would meet the criteria of not impacting horse farms and be located near the existing Urban Service Area, convenient to crucial infrastructure and capable of providing sewers. For example, there is an area near I-75 off Athens Boonesboro that makes sense for the community and is widely regarded as a common-sense area for inclusion.

The proposed expansion areas. (LFUCG)

All segments of our community would benefit by a review of all the land that the Planning Commission staff has identified as suitable for two key reasons:

Housing for All Incomes & Stages of Life

The median home price in Lexington is $322,000, which has risen 100 percent in 10 years, according to Bluegrass REALTORS. That puts home buying, which is the best way to build generational wealth, out of reach for a majority of Lexingtonians.

More than 67,000 households in Fayette County households earn the median income of $61,526 or less, according to U.S. Census data. For those making that amount, a maximum affordable home price is $240,000. In July, there were fewer than 50 homes listed for sale in the entire county that would be affordable, including condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes. One house, which doesn’t technically have any bedrooms, is listed for $160,000.

The simple law of supply and demand tells us that more land will ease the skyrocketing increases in costs and the rapid pace of gentrification.

Land For Jobs

Job growth is paramount to the stability and well-being of families. Because the majority of city services are funded through the payroll tax, it also is crucial to maintaining and improving quality of life and vital city services. For the first time in our lifetimes, Fayette County has lost population. Any further decline will exacerbate budget deficits that already are looming for the city in the coming years.

The new Comprehensive Plan will identify, provide and sustain readily available publicly controlled economic development land to meet Fayette County’s need for jobs. But that land must be included in the Urban Service Area.

Scarcity of resources pits people and groups against each other. Lexington is facing that today with land – and the result is gentrification, skyrocketing home prices that are out of reach for our essential workers and young professionals, and new jobs and expansion of jobs (along with the tax base they bring) are going to surrounding counties.

But it is an arbitrary scarcity because we have land available. Bringing in the maximum 5,000 acres is less than 4 percent of the land currently outside the boundary.

We can’t afford to wait. Delay is not a solution. We urge the workgroup to consider bringing in all the land that the Planning Commission staff has identified through a rigorous, data-informed analysis. Our community deserves it.    

Ray Daniels serves as the chair of Lexington for Everyone, which promotes equitable and affordable living and working opportunities for all by advocating for sensible and inclusive land use policies that protect our scenic beauty, strengthen our workforce, foster economic vitality, and advance Lexington’s unique history and cultural diversity – so that it becomes a place where everybody belongs. He is president of Equity Solutions Group and a Thoroughbred horse owner. Visit https://lexingtonforeveryone.com/ for more information.

A horse farm in Fayette County. (The Lexington Times)

Lexington deserves data-driven growth. Without it, we should demand minimum expansion.

by Bethany Roethemeier, Executive DIrector of Fayette Alliance

For nearly 20 years, Fayette Alliance has worked to support responsible, data-driven growth in Lexington-Fayette County. Thankfully, much of the growth in our community during this time has been achieved responsibly.

However, in recent months, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council has taken unprecedented steps, which fall outside the confines of the law and local statutes and which suggest that our decades of responsible urban growth may be coming to an end.

Earlier this summer, the Council ignored the recommendations of the Planning Commission, as well as data, research, and community input gathered during the Imagine Lexington 2045 Goals & Objectives process, and made the decision to expand the Urban Services Boundary (USB) for the first time since 1996.

As a result of the Council’s decision, the Urban Growth Management Plan Advisory Committee, a group of community leaders and council members, has been tasked with identifying 2,700-5,000 acres for expansion and development. The work of this group is moving ahead at an alarming pace. The committee began meeting on Aug. 8and has a deadline of Sept. 26 to identify and recommend land to be incorporated into the USB.

Perhaps more alarming than this speed, however, is the lack of relevant data that has been provided, despite requests from committee members. In order to plan for generation-shaping growth and development, and to make thoughtful and deliberate decisions, the committee needs more information.

The following critical questions are some that members of the Committee have asked, but have not yet been answered.

What will the ultimate cost to taxpayers be for the proposed expansion? The 2023 sewer study indicates that sewer infrastructure for just one of the largest proposed expansion areas – out Winchester Road – will cost more than $296M to build and require a high level of participation from LFUCG to cover the costs. This estimate does not include the additional services for new development like fire, police, or EMS personnel. No updated Cost of Community Services study has been completed.

What are the updated housing demands, population projections, and market needs for Lexington-Fayette County and surrounding counties? How many housing units do we need, how many units will be built inside the existing urban area and expansion areas, and how much additional acreage do we need to meet that demand?

How quickly are we developing land on an annual basis? Some research shows it’s as little as 100-125 acres per year.

Where and how much land do we have available – inside the urban area and from the last expansion? More than half of the land included in the 1996 expansion of the USB has yet to be developed. The Sustainable Growth Study, adopted by Council in 2021, found we have 6,000+ acres of vacant land inside the existing USB, not including underutilized acres.

Importantly, comprehensive data on each of these issues was provided in 1996, the last time the USB was expanded, before any vote for expansion even took place. How are our current decision makers able to make responsible policy without it?

At the end of August, in conjunction with a lawsuit Fayette Alliance and a group of concerned community members filed against the Council in July, a motion was filed for a temporary injunction against the expansion area planning work. Fayette Circuit Court Judge VanMeter will rule on this motion on Oct. 5. While awaiting Judge VanMeter’s ruling, Fayette Alliance urges members of the community to participate in a public hearing about the USB expansion, which will be held Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 6:00pm in Council chambers at 200 E. Main Street.

This public hearing offers us all the opportunity to let our voices be heard, and to stand up for thoughtful, deliberate, data-backed decision-making for our community. This is the only public hearing scheduled before the Committee makes its recommendation about expansion areas to the Planning Commission.

Fayette Alliance has also created a petition to demonstrate support for data-driven growth processes in Lexington-Fayette County. Anybody interested in joining the nearly 900 community members who have already signed can do so here.

For now, the only responsible way forward is to limit any proposed expansion to the Council’s minimum requirement of 2,700 acres. There is so much information missing, a data-driven process must be developed and implemented before our community can realistically plan for anything more – or we will continue to put Lexington-Fayette County’s legacy of responsible planning at risk.

Any expansion should be planned to limit negative impact to existing agricultural and equine operations and prime soils, limit costs to taxpayers, and require the best and highest use of each acre developed to meet community needs. If done thoughtfully, research shows 2,700 acres of additional land alone could create more than 16,000 diverse housing units, hundreds of acres for jobs, community facilities, and more. That doesn’t include what will continue to happen inside the existing boundary and remaining expansion areas.

We owe it to ourselves, our families, our community, and the future of Lexington-Fayette County to make the best decisions we can with the limited information and resources we have. For now, let’s demand the minimum expansion until a better process and more data is in place to inform it. Brittany Roethemeier is the executive director of Fayette Alliance.

Brittany Roethemeier is Executive Director of Fayette Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to achieving sustainable and equitable growth in Lexington-Fayette County through land-use advocacy, education, and research.