Letter to Council re: proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance

(Note: LFUCG Council votes Thursday evening August 27th on proposed changes to the current Zoning Ordinance. The following letter was sent to LFUCG Council on behalf of FCNC. Members recently received an email from FCNC encouraging them to ALSO contact CMs by 5pm August 27th and request 1) the proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance be removed from the docket and 2) that there be more input from residents on this significant proposed change to the Zoning Ordinance. This letter details some of the problematic issues with the proposed ZOTA.)

August 24, 2020

Dear Council Members:

The Fayette County Neighborhood Council requests that you remove the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment (ZOTA) from the docket for this Thursday, August 27 for reasons that we will provide below.  The ZOTA, as you are aware, would increase the floorspace allowed to apartment buildings relative to the lot size in R-3, R-4 and R-5 to as much as double or more their present limits.  The building footprint would increase correspondingly in the R-4 and R-5 zones, and the height limit would rise to 40’ for R-3 and many R-4 lots, especially the smaller ones.

The proposed FAR ZOTA is especially concerning because it would virtually eliminate the only multi-family zone that sets floorspace limits compatible with neighboring single-family uses.  For all intents and purposes, R-3 would be up-zoned in building area to the present R-4, called high density.  The revised R-4, in turn, would more than double in building size limits.  Despite the Comprehensive Plan policies striving for greater variety in housing density, this ZOTA with its up-zoned R-3 does not preserve or restore our “missing middle” housing types—the duplex, the fourplex, the accessible cottage courts for seniors—but encourages their extinction (A  Design 8, A Density 6, C Livability Pillar p. 115, D Support 9, E Balance 9. This and all further references are from Lexington’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan).

At a time when a major shopping area on Richmond Road with its vast parking lots has been closed for two years and another on Nicholasville Road stands in crisis, our city’s immediate energies should go toward repurposing these defunct or obsolescent spaces on major arterials for the new transit-oriented, multi-family housing that is needed.  Assailing existing residential land and relatively compact housing is not the best path forward, especially not housing that already occupies, in large part, the smallest blocks and lots in the city with the best connected streets and pedestrian environment (A Density 4, A Equity 3, D Placemaking 12, E Growth 8 and 10).

It is all too easy to see this proposed up-zoning of the R-3 and R-4 zones for larger modern apartment buildings as a repetition of the urban renewal program that saw those zones imposed on the entire residential area of the inner city in the first place.  At the time of the urban-county merger fifty years ago, land that had historically been built and used for houses was assigned “low-density” (R-3) and “high-density” (R-4) apartment zoning that remains in great part to this day:  all Loudon Avenue and south, from the eastern industrial border at Midland westward to the Georgetown Street area.  South of downtown, most of Aylesford and westward to the South End was up-zoned for apartments, including the Maxwell Street row lately sought for a luxury student high-rise.  Surely we can do better today.

The proposed ZOTA amounts to a second wave of urban renewal, which will sweep over this specific area at the heart of the city with no mailed notice to the residents most affected.  Planning Staff made clear in discussion with the Planning Commission that they did not expect the ZOTA to have much immediate impact in the R-3 and R-4 zoning of the more recent suburbs, where investment is substantial and recent.  The target is the city center.

This up-zoning aims gives fresh incentive to tear down smaller, older houses and throw lots together to develop larger apartment blocks three and four stories square, forty feet high or more.  It rewards real estate investors that acquire and aggregate lots for large-scale rental development.  “Heat maps” developed for the Task Force on Neighborhoods in Transition already show areas north of Main Street among the highest in the city for rates of foreclosure, and lowest in sale prices and rates of home ownership.  Residents’ vulnerability to gentrification and displacement is only heightened by a ZOTA that gives regulatory incentive to large-scale residential redevelopment here:  who will be able to afford the rents following the new construction?

Currently the Housing & Gentrification Subcommittee of the Mayor’s Commission for Racial Justice & Equality is developing a number of recommendations to fight displacement of long-time residents.  Several of these correspond closely to Comprehensive Plan policies, and deserve your warmest support.  The Subcommittee urges stabilizing, preserving, and enhancing existing affordable housing through a community land trust or bank that facilitates home ownership (A Equity 4); they are researching a zoning overlay to forestall displacement and promote stability and affordability for long-time residents.  They advise better support for rehabilitating substandard housing to keep people in their homes.  They recommend setting code enforcement on an improved footing through a rental licensing and inspection program that protects rather than victimizes the city’s most vulnerable tenants and homeowners (A Equity 5).  These are all promising avenues for enhancing housing opportunity as opposed to encouraging the sometimes predatory removal of small houses and their replacement with large apartment buildings.

How could the proposed zoning change be improved?  First, open the ZOTA proposal to public comment and discussion.  Complete transparency is necessary if governing is to be successful and democratic.  Anything this important for Lexington—probably the largest zoning change, in acreage and importance together, since the creation of the merged government—should not happen without public participation.  Very few citizens participated in the Planning Commission review.  It surely should not take place without the awareness and active involvement of those most closely impacted—something that the mailed notice required by statute to accompany a map amendment assures, but the ZOTA review process lacks.  We know that most citizens could not well locate the R-3, R-4 and R-5 zones of their own district.

The carpet rezoning of the central city to impose markedly higher residential density was not a successful strategy fifty years ago, and a rezoning still broader in scope, by text amendment, cannot be a welcome and winning strategy now.  We believe that amendments instituting such pronounced increases in density for land zoned multi-family are better developed as a publicly-initiated series of map amendments.  In order to encourage positive neighborhood engagement, such a process should begin with community-based collaborative work, placemaking activities (Comprehensive Plan pp 167-82), and a small area plan.  However, our first target for rezoning should not be existing residential land but rather the city’s overlarge retail footprint, the underutilized land singled out for redevelopment in E Growth 10 within the theme appropriately called “Balance.”

The Comprehensive Plan (Theme F, Goal 1) calls for engaging citizens in the planning process, including early and continuous communication.  No one can understand better how to achieve this communication than our Council Members.  Certainly the COVID-19 pandemic has enormously heightened the challenges in fulfilling this aim.  We are prepared to exercise patience and ingenuity, to do our best for Lexington-Fayette County and its neighborhoods.

We again ask that the proposed ZOTA be pulled from the docket and put in committee for further study and discussion.  Before any final vote is held, citizens need more information, forums for discussion, and a public hearing.

Thank you for your careful consideration of such an important change in Lexington’s residential fabric proposed for adoption in the zoning ordinance.   Thank you for your service to our community in this trying time.


Walt Gaffield, President
Fayette County Neighborhood Council, Inc.