Thursday, February 2, 2012

Becoming An "Urban County"

I heard a conversation today where the participants, clearly very pro PDR (that is Lexington's Purchase of Development Rights program) spoke of the council representation for the 12th district. I believe that the exact words were that “the rural interests of the 12th district have not been represented since Gloria Martin left office”. That is just the facts of living in a continually urbanizing county and the willing move to raise the minimum lot size for residential use.

Fayette County has twelve council districts which, by charter, are supposed to be nearly equal in population based on the latest Census figures. Even in the early days of merger, that meant including a good portion of the suburban neighborhoods.

Lexington chose to become a very compact city, when in 1958 they imposed a urban growth boundary (USA), actually the very first in the nation. It was designed to bring on orderly, cost efficient development and prevent dispersing services widely throughout the county. Many of its objectives did as designed but some such as our trunk sewer system could have used some better estimates on sizing.

At about the same time the local health department recognized that septic systems in the rural areas would need larger lots in order to function correctly and imposed a 10 acre minimum on all new development outside the growth boundary. This, of course, would bring the overall residential density of the rural area lower over time without other influences coming into play.

But other influences did come into play, in the form of “agricultural” subdivisions for those wishing for a place in the country. Ten acre plots springing up all over the county for housing a family looking for basically a status symbol house and little more. Farmland being used for fewer and fewer people and no agricultural production of any kind. Actually a worse type of sprawl than paving it all over and building shopping centers on it. The rural character was lost as well as the loss of density.

The authors of the merger charter desired to live up to the spirit of the Urban Service Area concept by designating one council district, the 12th, to be as rural as they could make it. Unfortunately, that meant including enough of the urban subdivisions to bring the district population proportionate to 1/12th of the county. To accomplish that a large part of the long established USA was required to be included.

By now it should be easy to see that, electing a representative in an area which will only grow more urban and expect that representative, being responsive to his constituents, to remain totally rural focused. A council member elected every two years, a district adjusted every ten years and the trend toward increasing urbanization can only mean a loss of rural influence.

It may be this loss of influence that these folks were speaking of which will play a part in the ongoing onslaught toward PDR.

Many people are beginning to feel that, in these days of increasing budgets and falling revenues, PDR is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I have heard it said that PDR is paying property owners for development rights on land that cannot be developed as it is.

This is not to say that a major thoroughbred farm operation or the Horse Park/Keeneland type places is not fully developed, because they obviously are. But should we pay for these “developed” farms to NOT develop? The Council's last few budget battles have brought more and more pressure to bear on the viability of continuing to fund PDR.

Gloria Martin was a championing force behind PDR and the increase to 40 acre minimum lot size as well as the 300 foot setback for rural houses, and failing any rural influence since her departure, PDR may be in real trouble. This year will see a district race in which PDR will probably have a good showdown. The real rural dweller in the race is set on dismantling the existing program and the suburbanite candidate may not be able to fund its continuance.

We are marching on to becoming an urban county.

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