Frankfort and Franklin County are at a development crossroads.
According to Planning Commission Chair Sherron Jackson, the county and city have not completely reworked their comprehensive plan in 20 years.
This year, Jackson said, the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee is looking to do just that.
The comprehensive plan is a state-mandated document that the planning commission is required to consider readopting or altering every five years. It was last updated in 2016, with the last full rewrite of it taking place in 2001, according to Architectural Review Board Chair Patti Cross, who is also on the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee.
The steering committee’s job now is to select the consultant who will redo the county and city plan. The committee is drafting a request for proposals (RFP) from prospective consultants.
Currently, the steering committee consists of Jackson, Cross, Franklin County Magistrate J.W. Blackburn, Franklin County Planning & Zoning Director Robert Hewitt, Frankfort Planning Director Eric Cockley and a city seat vacated by former Commissioner Eric Whisman, who was defeated in his recent reelection bid.
Jackson said the planning commission has asked city officials to fill the vacancy. The city commission voted to put Whisman on the panel in October to the chagrin of Commissioner Katrisha Waldridge, who was often at odds with the four previous members of the commission.
The consultant who is eventually hired will gather information about Frankfort, Franklin County and regional trends.
Per comments by committee members at its December meeting, the process will include meetings held across Franklin County with the purpose of gathering citizen input on how the plan should be reworked, and what the future of Frankfort and Franklin County should look like.
“It’s been almost 20 years since each of those elements of the comprehensive plan has been torn apart and put back together,” Jackson said. “What we’re proposing at this point is we want to break the comp plan into its component parts and then reconstruct them in a way that recognizes the changes that have occurred in order to be able to outline, with the help of other agencies in Franklin County, to better reflect what needs to happen in Franklin County in order for it to be successful.”
Cockley attributed the lack of a major change in the plan to the community’s only-recent comeback from the effects of the Great Recession of 2008.
The latest target date for completion of the plan forwarded by the steering committee is June, with the potential for that deadline to extend depending on the consultant selected.
What to expect
Along with a positive change in the housing market, Hewitt pointed to two significant changes in the fabric of the county that might affect this year’s comprehensive plan: the bourbon industry boom and the potential for more development in southwest Franklin County along U.S. 127 due to an increasingly robust Frankfort sewer system.
The most prominent distillery in the county is Buffalo Trace, which produces large quantities of bourbon and other spirits and attracts many thousands of visitors each year. In 2019, the distillery brought nearly 300,000 visitors into the county.
At the steering committee’s last meeting, Hewitt also pointed out that Buffalo Trace may need more land to suit its needs as the industry continues to grow.
Hewitt indicated that the sewer project in the southwest portion of the county — currently under control of the Farmdale Sanitation District — could lead to future development.
The demand, he said, is already there.
“Residential developments that were started and then stopped as a result of recession have come back online,” Hewitt said. “... If you talk to real estate professionals, they'll tell you inventory for housing is is low. There does not appear to be enough housing, at the moment, to satisfy the need. So the demand is out there.”
Hewitt added that his office issued more single family housing permits in 2020 than it did during the housing boom of the early and mid-2000s, which could please those who have criticized the city and county for lagging behind its neighbors in terms of population growth.
Franklin County Judge-Executive Huston Wells said that while the sewer project still hinges on some variables, the county is “real close to getting something done with the city.”
The project would be large in scope. It would link property currently dependent on the Farmdale Sanitation District for its sewage and water needs to the City of Frankfort’s more modern sewer system according to Wells.
Wells said the agreement — which has yet to be hammered out between the city and county — would kill two birds with one stone. It would allow a significant chunk of land along U.S. 127, a central traffic vein for the county, to be developed and would take that portion of the county off of the treatment plant-based Farmdale Sanitation District.
All three development officials anticipated discussion around that portion of the county, as well as development in general, could be vigorous during the comprehensive plan’s public engagement process.
“We have a significant portion of the county, which at some point in the near future is likely going to have a whole lot of public sanitary sewers installed,” Cockley said. “I can't imagine we won't have a lot of vigorous debates about what the future of that part of the county should look like.”
Hewitt said the area will likely see a “classic battle” between advocates for growth and preservation.
Though not mentioned, the most recent example of that conflict took place last summer when advocates for industrial growth clashed with those who support preservation over the proposed rezoning of farmland on Duncan Road.
The future land use map was a central point of discussion in guiding arguments both for and against rezoning that property; the Fiscal Court eventually voted to deny a zone change, keeping it agricultural.
“Growth and development provide that revenue to the governments which then provide the public services,” Hewitt said. “So we've got that angle, but then you've got the others who want to preserve, which is all very valid. So it's the balance — where do we strike the balance? What's appropriate? How do we serve our community with what we currently have, and still retain our identity in Central Kentucky?”
Hewitt also mentioned at the steering committee meeting that this process has the potential to unite the visions of many of the county's and city’s disparate plans.
The committee named several plans that are either still in the works or have yet to be fully acted on that merit consideration in the rewrite of the comprehensive plan: the city’s Parks Master Plan, the Downtown Master Plan, the city’s parking study, Walk/Bike Frankfort’s plan, the Joint Land Use study conducted with the Kentucky National Guard, the Holmes Street Redevelopment Plan, and more.
“Just think of the time, effort and money put into these plans,” Hewitt said. “They all seem to be standalone plans, and this is a great chance to bring them all together, because otherwise they’re just plans on the shelf.”
The format for public discussion about growth, preservation and any other topic related to the county's and city’s future development will take place in a manner guided by the consultant the committee selects.
Whisman, in previous meetings, had suggested that the committee adopt an input process more robust but similar to that deployed by the city’s Parks Master Plan committee.
Jackson emphasized that all steering committee meetings already take place on the city's and county’s Facebook pages, and can be viewed either live or as recordings there. He strongly encouraged anyone interested in the committee’s work to tune in.
The Future Land Use Map
The most controversial, and often the most cited, aspect of the comprehensive plan is the plan’s Future Land Use Map.
While Hewitt and Cockley stressed that the Future Land Use Map should not be taken as gospel since it does not change the zoning of any land, they did say that it is important for landowners and those interested in development to be able to grasp what will likely happen to the zoning of a given area in the near future.
“It’s not just about ‘what can I do with my property,’ it’s what is likely to happen there,” Cockley said. “If you buy a house near a farm and right next to it it’s marked 'commerce center' then you should use that as an indicator that maybe this won’t be a farm forever. It provides some level of predictability for folks. It helps people to make good investments because you have some clue for what might happen 10 to 20 years from now.”
One example of the Future Land Use Map not necessarily leading to significant changes — at least not at the moment — is the "regional retail" designation given to multiple plots of land at the county's westernmost Interstate 64 interchange. Most of the land surrounding that interchange is still zoned as farmland.
One patch of land that could be brought up for discussion, per Cockley, is the large parcels to the east of Frankfort's west side shopping center — the one that currently contains the west side Kroger. Three parcels of it run alongside the East-West Connector.
Much of that property is zoned commercial but currently sits vacant, while one parcel of land currently zoned agricultural sits right at the I-64 interchange.
Jackson pointed out that, with the committee’s intention to rewrite much of the comprehensive plan, there could be several parts of the county considered during the process that haven’t been considered in years past — as well as properties that aren't yet on the radar of city and county officials.
“One of the reasons to redo the plan is that in reality every acre of Franklin County, when it comes to the Future Land Use Map, can be up for discussion,” Jackson said.
A large majority of the county — most all land to the east, west and north of the city limits — is labeled for “rural activities” in the latest Future Land Use Map.
Other topics mentioned by Cockley, Hewitt and Jackson as potential discussion points were the future of office space in the county, what kind of jobs the county should attract, historic preservation, further involvement of Kentucky State University, and road projects, among others.
“There’s always an underlying current of what should Frankfort, as a state capital community, look and act like,” Jackson said. “Should it be an industrial kind of community or should it be a white-collar community? What kind of community should it be as a state capital?”
They all agreed that in selecting a consultant, a top priority would be engaging the public in order to adequately figure out how the community would answer those questions.
“Making the maps and analyzing is all very important, but without public input it’s nothing,” Hewitt said. "Our biggest challenge is how we engage the public in the midst of a pandemic. This consultant better have some awesome ideas as to how we can allow people to engage and participate in this. That’s the biggest challenge I see.”