Citizens Speak Out Against Proposed Bluegrass Station Airport

Bourbon County citizens gather to discuss proposed expansion to Bluegrass Station | Sara Gordon

by Sara Gordon and Katie Petrunyak 

PARIS, KENTUCKY–Citizens of Bourbon County, Central Kentucky and beyond are banding together under a newly founded nonprofit organization to combat a proposed expansion of Bluegrass Station. Many are concerned that this project could involve the use of eminent domain, the government's power to purchase private property for public use, and local farmers and horsemen fear it would cause irrevocable damage to their environment and community.

A 63-page report on the proposed expansion, which calls for the acquisition of an initial 2,000 acres for the construction of an airfield and airpark with the potential to double in size in the future, was presented to the Kentucky General Assembly in November of 2022. However, members of the public were not made aware of the plans until just last week when a private citizen discovered it in the most recent proposed version of the state's budget, which includes $320 million allocated for the expansion.

Bluegrass Station, once an army depot, is currently a 780-acre site near the Fayette/Bourbon county line and is Kentucky's only state-owned industrial park, employing over 2,000 Kentuckians. Lockheed Martin, a private government contractor specializing in aerospace and defense manufacturing, is Bluegrass Station's largest employer.

According to the report from 2022, preliminary research shows that this proposed expansion would require an upfront investment of $55 million in the state's bond money for land acquisition and pre-development costs, as well as an estimated $88 million for roadway improvements. For the majority of the funding, the project would be launched as a Public-Private Partnership (P-3).

Map of proposed expansion | Bluegrass Station Airport Implementation Path report

The report states that the completed project would create 3,000 to 6,000 permanent jobs and generate $12 million to $20 million in annual, recurring state and local tax revenues. It would include more than $1.4 billion in private investment for airfield and airpark infrastructure and development.

On a technical basis, the report proposes an initial runway length of 7,800 feet–the longest in Central Kentucky–and a runway width of 150 feet, plus paved shoulders. At this length, the runway would be able to accommodate single engine aircrafts, corporate jets, smaller cargo aircrafts and military aircrafts, while also serving as backup to commercial traffic and larger cargo activity needs in the area. It is noted that the runway would be designed with potential for future extension.

As the news of this proposed plan has spread, so too has the dreaded feeling of deja vu for many Bourbon County residents. Back in 2017, a similar proposal to expand Bluegrass Station was pitched at the local level but ultimately killed by Bourbon County Fiscal Court. This time around, citizens are frustrated by the lack of transparency.

“The whole thing has been cloaked in secrecy,”  said Lynn Hancock, whose family's Stone Farm is located eight miles from Bluegrass Station. “There has been no information, as far as I know, no environmental studies, no community engagement, and they haven't spoken to any of the people whose properties they would be threatening to use eminent domain in order to seize. The whole thing just seems like it's been done with no regard for the people who are actually going to be affected by it.

“Not only does it threaten our business in terms of the Thoroughbred industry and a lot of other people as well, but it would definitely change the way of life.”

She pointed out a portion of the report that reads: It is possible that the Commonwealth's use of eminent domain to acquire significant property for the Project could inspire public resentment, especially if the Commonwealth is not transparent with its actions, the benefits for community or the need for the Project.

“I think it's funny, because how could it not [inspire public resentment]? It's a sizable project and again, no one thought they should discuss with the community. These elected officials don't care to discuss with their constituents whether it's something we want. Ultimately, it's the state taking our taxpayer dollars to heist private property from people unwilling to sell.”

Hancock questioned the promise of job opportunity, while also pointing out how detrimental the pollutants could be to the overall environment and the land considered by most to be the best in the world to raise horses on.

“How many people working there are actually coming from Bourbon County? I think it's going to be a lot of people moving here from out of state and they're going to live in Lexington. And even if it does create jobs, how many other jobs are going to be lost if it has such a negative impact on some of the industries that we do have here?” she said. “What's it going to do to the environment, to the well water? We raise all of our mares on well water. Are we going to have mares breathing in soot? I mean, is there going to be soot on Secretariat's grave? It will have a massive impact any time you have the size of plane they're talking about bringing in.

“This is not some developmental area where people are seeking to sell their land and make a profit. I think it sets an extremely scary precedent for private property rights. I don't know how as an elected official you can sleep at night knowing all of the backdoor dealing that has been going on. They know it's not what the people that elected them want.”

Bill Dickson, a seventh-generation farmer whose Glen Oak Farm neighbors Stone Farm, echoed Hancock's concern. Though both Stone Farm and Glen Oak Farm are not at immediate risk of being purchased under eminent domain, Hancock and Dickson said they have no doubt the effects will be felt far outside of the Bluegrass Station borders.

“My ancestors started in 1792 and were pioneers at a local station here. I operate a 500-acre farm and we've got Thoroughbreds, a cattle herd, and we raise commercial hay and row crops as well,” he said. “They'd be coming in and taking off over my land and I just don't think that's a healthy place to raise livestock and all the other things I do on my farm. Central Kentucky is an agriculture-based location. It's how we've made our money, it's how we've made our mark on the world. I understand it's going to grow as our population grows, but [this plan] infringes on what we're known for. You're taking some of that away from one of our signature industries.

“I'm supportive of progress, but we need to do it in a way that's advantageous to both of us and not just push eminent domain and have this government land grab. Let's be constructive about where we do these things.”

Ellie Stilson is a nurse at UK Hospital and the owner of Daisy Acres Farm, which is within the designated area for future development in the proposal. Her 50-acre property is home to several dozen Thoroughbreds, both broodmares and retirees.

Although Stilson would receive fair market value if she is forced to give up her property due to eminent domain, with current market rates she does not believe that she could afford another farm in Central Kentucky with a similar amount of acreage.

“I don't think I'm going to get anything like this again,” she explained. “It's 50 acres. What about the animals that live here? What am I going to do with them? But I'm only 50 acres out of 2,000. At the end of the day I won't be homeless, but there are people down the road living in trailers that will be. That's my concern. I don't know where these people are going to go.”

A 501(c)(4) formed by local citizens, 'Citizens for Bourbon County' hosted a town hall meeting on Sunday, Feb. 18 to discuss the implications of this proposal and how they plan to fight it. Around 300 citizens gathered to discuss the ramifications not only for those whose land might be taken from them, but for the entirety of the local community.

The meeting was hosted by Rebecca Rigney, whose family has lived on their sport horse farm just down the road from Bluegrass Station for 20 years. Her land is also at risk of being taken over if the plan goes through.

Rebecca Rigney welcomes crowd gathered for Feb. 18 town hall meeting | Katie Petrunyak

“I call for a burden of proof to be placed on our elected officials,” Rigney told attendees gathered in her indoor riding arena. “Proof that this will work instead of stating that it will. Proof of how this will impact the environment with studies. Proof that there is not another location that will provide jobs elsewhere while preserving our farms and the most precious soil in the world. Proof that your tenants won't be temporary. I want a guarantee that the sacrifices my neighbors and my family make are for more than just a multi-million dollar corporation.”

Mark Offutt, a local landowner and former county magistrate, voted against the expansion in 2017.

“Secrecy and lack of transparency has followed this project for the last seven years,” Offutt said. “The same corporate bullying and tactics that they are using now with the threat of Lockheed pulling 2,000 jobs out is exactly the same rhetoric that they used in 2017 and the jobs are still here…Their model of empty promises and secret meetings behind closed doors hasn't changed at all.”

Some of the attendees expressed their belief that elected officials purposefully kept the project from public eye because of the overwhelming opposition from the community during the 2017 proposal.

“What's extremely clear is that our government, knowing our opposition from 2017 and 2018, tried to hide the movement of this project from us,” said Ike Van Meter, a cattle farmer and Thoroughbred owner and breeder based near Bluegrass Station. “Our elected officials have happily kept us in the dark until the money had been signed off on by the legislature and government.”

Van Meter, whose family farm would be part of the acreage acquired through eminent domain, said he has tried to get in touch with several elected officials including Governor Andy Beshear, but was directed to Steve Collins, the executive director of Bluegrass Station.

“This project is a massive bait and switch with the false pretense of military support, but it's really an illegal use of eminent domain to try and benefit a few multi-billion dollar companies at the expense of prime Kentucky farmland,” he said.

The TDN reached out to Bourbon County Judge Mike Williams, Senator Stephen West who represents the 27th District that includes Bourbon County, and Representative Matthew Koch who represents Bourbon County as part of the 72nd District, but did not hear back.

TDN did get in touch with Collins, who suggested that citizens may feel as though they've been blindsided because the project has not yet advanced to the outreach point in the project's timeline.

“The next step will be sending a request for information to the possible P-3s [Public-Private Participants],” Collins said. “This $55 million [in bond money] is about 20% of the buildout, so it's all private. We will go out into the P-3 community with an RFI [Request for Information] probably in April or something like that. It will take them a while to respond to that. They'll tell us in their response if what we're doing fits that model, so it will change shape a bit at that point. People feel like they got steamrolled by some of these processes, but it's very deliberate. We're out of sequence because after the RFI is when the outreach is supposed to start.”

Collins also countered against what many people have stated regarding the purpose behind the expansion.

“This has never been about economic development,” he said. “That's an outcome or a result. This need is national defense and state strategic obligation, state financial obligation and regional aviation needs. There's a lot of people involved in the need, thousands of people that could become one. There was no due diligence the first time [in 2017]. We knew it was somewhat unpopular back then, but they were using local financing that just wasn't going to work. This is not a local project. It affects local people but this is a national, even global, project.”

Collins has estimated that there will be six military planes per month and 10 to 20 private planes per day utilizing the runway.

When asked about why a facility like this cannot be built elsewhere, Collins said it goes back to the “core customer” of Bluegrass Station.

“Bluegrass Station was invented to serve this customer, ” he said. “…we've created a response model for this customer that we can provide what they need to accomplish their mission faster and cheaper than anybody else. They're using this model to bring in more work. The kind of work they do can't be talked about, so to speak.”

Outlined in an overview of the report, the project timeline estimates four to six months for the RFI phase to be completed, which includes drafting a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) and conducting title exams. It isn't until the next phase, when the RFQ would be issued, that public engagement would begin. It is within that second task, estimated to span six to 10 months, that they would also shortlist teams, issue Request for Proposals (RFP) and enter the P-3 Agreement.

Also included in the overview is a project outline, which estimates that if the budget to fund this project is passed, land acquisition would be completed within a two-year timeframe followed by the development of the airfield and airpark over the next two years.

At the town hall meeting, Van Meter expressed the importance of citizens residing in Bourbon County and beyond to contact their elected officials and express their disagreement with the proposed expansion of the former army depot.

“This is not a done deal,” he said. “We will fight. We will fight to keep this out of the budget and if it goes through we will continue fighting. I encourage each of you here to tell your neighbors, have your neighbors tell their neighbors and we will continue to fight.”

As it stands, the House has already passed its version of the budget and it now goes to the Senate.

Arthur Hancock III, a fourth-generation horseman and owner of Stone Farm, shared his perspective during Sunday's meeting. Based on the reaction from the crowd, his words were an overarching sentiment shared and felt by all.

“I would hate to think that our representatives were aware of this all along and never even told their neighbors that something was coming to take their land and their heritage. If that is the case, it's downright un-American and most certainly un-Kentuckian,” he said. “I hope the rest of the people in our state will take notice of what's happening in Bourbon County and will always remember those who came secretly and slyly, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our way of life, from those who instigated this plan to those who are now trying to carry it out. And we should all remember that this may well be the tip of the iceberg of what could come next.

“To those behind this: if you want to try and stab me, at least be man enough not to stab me in the back.”

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