Preservation Movement

When the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program was launched in 2000, the plan was to reach half of its goal of 50,000 acres in 10 years. Despite the downturn in the economy, not only is the program still on track, but the PDR program should reach its midway goal while Lexington hosts an international crowd in town for the World Equestrian Games.

“It would be an incredible opportunity to make the world aware of the fact that we have made a long-term capital investment in our green infrastructure and in our civic identity,” said Billy Van Pelt, the PDR’s program director with LFUCG. “The reason the World Equestrian Games came to Lexington is because of the unique, rural landscape that we have here.  It’s being held outside of Europe for the very first time. And once again our global brand identity has allowed us to attract the international community that’s really been here since the ’70s.”

Under the PDR program, farmers can continue to own and farm their land while selling only the right to develop that property, under their ownership or by any potential property buyers. The program currently holds the development rights for 23,167 acres, or roughly 46 percent of its goal, Van Pelt said, and the city’s $27 million investment in the program has been boosted with roughly $31.5 million from state and federal grants.

“We’ve leveraged the local tax dollar as much as possible,” he said. “The Federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program has awarded us $15,997,631 to date, and the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy in Frankfort has awarded us $15,450,000.”

None of the recent federal stimulus packages have included funds for preservation grants, however in 2008 Congress approved $733 million over the next five years for land preservation.

Though the PDR program looks to preserve the rural landscape Lexington has, Van Pelt said the program is not anti-growth. “Our ranking system is set up to actually give negative points to properties that are adjacent to the Urban Services Area or that are at an interstate interchange. So the program was designed to allow for a controlled plan expansion of the urban services boundary at the right time. So I think that there’s not a question of whether we’re going to grow or not — it’s when, where and how.”

In this year’s rounds of development rights purchases, 52 farms applied for the program, with a combined 4,814 acres. Van Pelt said they are looking to buy conservation easements on 25 of them, given this year’s total funding of $3 million, which includes a $2.5 million LFUCG contribution in the last fiscal year.

Lexington is in good company, as some of the most popular areas for tourism in the country have their own conservation right programs in place. “The Lexington PDR program is now being held up as a national model with Sonoma County, Calif.; Marin County, Calif.; Suffolk County, N.Y.; Lancaster County, Pa.; and Baltimore County, Md.,” Van Pelt said.

Suffolk County is home to the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island. Sonoma County in California is one of the finest places for wine outside of Europe, and Lancaster County, Pa. is Pennsylvania Amish country.

“We’re seeing the amount of infill and redevelopment focus downtown because we are embracing the preservation of our rural area, and the reality is that people want to live in Lexington because of this unique, rural landscape that we have,” Van Pelt said. “It is our global brand identity. We’ve heard this time and time again — that we are really in the best situation, because we have a vibrant urban core that’s surrounded by a world-class landscape.”

“Our situation is somewhat unique in that we are not in areas that have been highly urbanized like California and New York and Baltimore. …  Our heritage is in agriculture,” Van Pelt said.

As far as the program is concerned, Van Pelt said, “We are right where we needed to be. The reason the program was put into place was that a broad cross-section of the community that’s represented on the Rural Land Management Board — Realtors, builders, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, historic preservation, land preservation and neighborhood groups, and Thoroughbred and farming interests — came together to discuss how we are going to handle and manage our rural landscape. And our rural landscape was being eroded by 10-acre-lot development, so in 1998, the lot minimum in the rural service area was increased from 10 acres to 40 acres. The Rural Area Land Management Plan was adopted by the planning commission in 1999; the PDR Ordinance was adopted in 2000. So all of those things came into place because there was a broad cross-section of the community that came together to collaborate to make this program a reality.”

Applications for farms hoping to enter the program are due by the last working day of January each year. The program will continue through 2020, when it is scheduled to be completed as it reaches a total of 50,000 acres.