History, Tree Concerns Raised At City Forum

Long-range Plan Under Construction In Lexington

When they imagined an ideal future for Lexington, some residents saw a commitment to diversity and equity, and plenty of tree shade.

Last Tuesday, the Planning Commission held a virtual public forum to explain the latest draft of the comprehensive plan and to solicit further input from the community.

Described as a “visionary” tool, the comprehensive plan is both a written account of the state of the city — its problems and advantages — and a document that articulates the values meant to drive future action over the next 20 years. Catherine Redfearn, the principal planner with the Berkely Group, an entity hired by the city of Lexington to undertake this task and others, said that officials often use comprehensive plans to guide their decision making processes.

At the forum, Redfearn and Kelly Davis, director of planning for the Berkley Group, began by describing the state of the city. They concluded, through on-the ground analysis, census data and interviews, that the top three concerns for Lexington’s future were, one, a lack of job opportunities, especially for young people; two, a lack of appropriate housing and affordability; and three, a lack of shopping and services.

Among the other challenges noted was the high student population as compared to the number of recent graduates. The Berkley Group estimated that while 50 percent of Lexington is made up of students, only 8 percent of the population is made up of recent graduates who have decided to stay.

Soliciting economic development — and therefore the jobs necessary to retain young people — is a special challenge in a city that is already built up and can’t grow its borders. Plus, the current available housing abounds in larger structures that aren’t attractive or appropriate to young people. At the other end of the issue is the dearth of senior housing. As Planning Director Arne Glaeser reminded the forum, the study on the Virginia Department of Transportation property near Maury River Middle School, which investigated the kinds of development there that would be advantageous to the city, found that there is a market for 200 additional units in Lexington.

Another challenge is the old infrastructure, which will soon demand new investment. When it does, the Planning Commission and the community want to replace it with greener technologies. Seventy percent of water and sewer infrastructure in the city will need to be replaced in the next 20-30 years, Redfearn reported.

In order to make Lexington a better place to live, the Berkley Group surmised, the city needs to overcome such challenges. They found that its people want more shopping and entertainment, more community, family, and kid friendly spaces, increased affordability, increased walkability, and economic development and opportunities for young people.

Other aspirations are addressed through various chapters, or “planning elements,” which are subjects deemed important to the Planning Commission. On the city’s website, residents can find the comprehensive plan and details on its chapters of transportation, historic resources, the local economy, arts and culture, historic resources, housing, land use, community services, and governance.

Some notable strategies include an intention to create “a continuous network of sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails to connect green infrastructure assets,” and the recommendation to practice “economic gardening” by offering startup loans and financial advice to small businesses.

A few residents who had reviewed the plan and attended the virtual meeting took issue with vague intentions to “expand” the city’s historic resources, asking exactly what part of history the Commission was referring to. One resident expressed the desire to expand Lexington’s history beyond the Civil War years in particular, thereby encompassing a wide range of experience.

“The Civil War years are really a whole lot less interesting than the rest of the area’s history. But they’re not as easily sold to tourists,” Doug Harwood commented in a Facebook message. He wondered if things would change with the new generation.

Redfearn and Davis were sympathetic to that suggestion and declared that the Planning Commission would be considering it in its future meetings.

“We’re in full agreement that this was gonna be an — amendment, or not an amendment — a change to the plan before we move on to the public hearing process,” Davis said.

“I’m not sure what heritage tourism is,” Chris Wise commented, “but I’d rather see the use of historic tourism, as heritage means different things to different people.”

Wise was referring to a section in the historic resources chapter which includes the objective “Provide the appropriate planning information, regulation, and coordination for historic preservation and heritage tourism.”

“Particularly these days, those are loaded terms,” Catherine Redfearn agreed, “and we’ll be looking at them in detail as we’re editing and refining the plan.”

The Berkely Group and the Planning Commission also fielded questions about trees, with one resident stating that the city was not “planting nearly enough” trees to replace those that are dying.

“The green infrastructure chapter does include a strategy specifically for increasing urban tree canopy. It also acknowledges that the city does a lot currently in terms of their tree board, the city arborist, to foster tree canopy within the city,” Redfearn said. “That said, the last assessment of tree canopy within the city was in 2009, I believe. It recognizes the need to look and plan more strategically for tree canopy growth as trees die out.”

Speaking on behalf of 50 ways Rockbridge and the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, Louise Ward asked that the Commission turn its attention to the objectives and strategies that it had recently provided which focus on energy sustainability and environmental resilience.

Davis assured her that the objectives would be a topic of conversation at future Planning Commission meetings.

The comprehensive plan is still in a draft stage. Further edits and resident input will influence the final document, which will later go before Council and go through the public hearing process.

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