Country Custodians

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Dan Dickson

Fayette Alliance keeps a sharp eye on issues that threaten the Bluegrass quality of life

Knox van Nagell (left), Fayette Alliance executive director, and Don Robinson, chair of the Fayette Alliance board of directors. PHOTO BY EMILY MOSELEY

In 2006, several leaders in agriculture, business, development and neighborhood associations got together and agreed that they needed to better answer the question of not whether Fayette County would grow, but how would it grow?

“Can we do it in a way that leverages the best of what Fayette County has to offer,” asks Knox van Nagell, director of Fayette Alliance, the organization that emerged from that exercise in community soul-searching.

Van Nagell says that six years ago there was no organization whose sole mission was to monitor growth and land-use policy at city hall.

“We feel that if we can advance a vibrant city connected to and balanced with our productive and unique Bluegrass farmland, then it’s a win-win and we will have created a world-class city and landscape,” said van Nagell, an attorney by trade who grew up on a cattle and row crop farm in eastern Fayette County, property that’s been in her family for over 200 years.

Fayette Alliance, a nonprofit 501 (c)(4) corporation independent of LFUCG, is a coalition of citizens dedicated to achieving sustainable growth in Fayette County through land-use advocacy, education and promotion.

The group advocates preserving Fayette County farmland, advancing innovative development and improving infrastructure for the collective success of Lexington. “If we do those things well, then we’ll create a vibrant city with a matchless rural landscape,” van Nagell said.

As an organization, Fayette Alliance claims to have worked with Lexington Fayette Urban County Government to usher some 60 major land-use policies onto the books while attempting to balance seemingly competing interests.

According to Fayette Alliance, Lexington lost more than 19,000 acres of agricultural land between 1997 and 2002 and was named as one of the most endangered cultural landscapes in the world by the World Monuments Fund.

But Fayette Alliance also urges in-fill within the city. It estimates there are 12,000 acres of underused and blighted land inside the city that could potentially be redeveloped to accommodate the city’s future growth needs.

In furtherance of their mission, Fayette Alliance has supported over $750 million in urban infill projects, advanced needed water quality programs, and protected over 8,000 acres of farmland from sprawl development in Lexington.

As far as local neighborhood issues are concerned, van Nagell says flooding and sewer problems persist in areas such as Chevy Chase, but relief is in sight. “Fayette Alliance has supported the sanitary user fee and the storm water fee so the government could raise money to fix this seemingly intractable problem.”

Van Nagell says that in some neighborhoods there is vacant or underutilized land. “We don’t want to support anything that would undermine the character of an established neighborhood. But we want to encourage growth if it’s done appropriately because it can improve property values in that neighborhood.”

Fayette Alliance, van Nagell says, doesn’t take positions on individual and specific neighborhood issues, such as the H-1 historic overlay for Ashland Park. “We feel that should be the bailiwick of the individual neighborhood associations. We don’t want to step on their toes,” she said. Instead, the organization takes stands on broader, county-wide issues like rezoning ordinances or the comprehension plan.

Don Robinson, chair of the Fayette Alliance board of directors, owns Winter Quarter Farm in southwest Fayette County. He’s been involved in various land issues since the mid-’90s. “I want to protect my ‘factory floor,’” as he puts it. The greatest threat to the region, Robinson says, is “our mindset, our usual way of development. We take the nearest farm or get options on land and just spread on out. I think the greatest threat is not thinking in a different way, frankly.”

Robinson added, “We’ve been protected because we had very smart founders who created an urban service boundary in Lexington in 1958.”

One reason Tom Poskin, president of Huntington National Bank, got involved in Fayette Alliance is because he believes if a community is thoughtful enough to create a master plan, then someone needs to monitor it to make sure it’s being followed. Does that make Poskin and others watchdogs?

“No, I consider us advocates,” he said. “We certainly have to be aware – make sure we know what’s going on at city hall. Through our network of members, we do a wonderful job of keeping everyone informed.”

And sometimes informed means reminding, such as recently when a group wanted a legal exemption to build a cell phone tower on a scenic byway in the rural area. Fayette Alliance is not necessarily against cell towers, but the organization maintains that the structures must be built in the right way, according to the law. Otherwise, land-use precedents may be established that could harm the community in the long term. “There are regulations to prohibit approval. But the next thing you know, the planning commission or zoning committee is voting on whether to allow a one-off exemption when clearly there’s a rule against such things,” Poskin said. “You have to go to meetings and remind them of that: ‘You made these rules; now follow them.’”

Poskin wants to prevent “the ball from rolling too far” before the community hears about an issue. Email blasts and other new media tools sound the alarm.

Along with Poskin and Robinson, van Nagell  believes that healthy, rural landscapes that are economically viable, along with a healthy, dynamic urban landscape, “creates the best of both worlds.”

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