Lexington council candidates talk Smallwood Cove, traffic and other issues at forum

Posted 11/3/23

Seven candidates running for three at-large seats on Lexington Town Council attended a forum organized by the Chronicle and the Lexington Chamber and Visitors Center on Nov. 1.

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Lexington council candidates talk Smallwood Cove, traffic and other issues at forum


Seven candidates running for three at-large seats on Lexington Town Council attended a forum organized by the Chronicle and the Lexington Chamber on Nov. 7.


Council Member Todd Lyle is running to hold onto his seat, while challengers Will Allen, Greg Brewer, Edwin Gerace, Matthew Graham, Jeannie Michaels and Amelia Cherry Pocta are vying to join the governing body.


The council hopefuls discussed traffic, handling ongoing growth, business regulations, and taxes and fees, among other issues. Chronicle managing editor Jordan Lawrence and reporter Kailee Kokes moderated alongside Michael Burgess, the lead teacher for River Bluff High School’s Center for Law and Global Policy.


The handling of Smallwood Cove, a 93.53-acre lakefront resort and conference center that was proposed and then shelved earlier this year, was one of the most controversial issues discussed.


Lyle said council were not fans of the high-density plan they were initially shown. He said the project should have made its way through the town Planning Commission before coming to council and being announced, stating that council passed first reading prior to the planning commission seeing the project.


Michaels, who is on the Planning Commission, agreed with Lyle, adding that the commission immediately said, “No, this is not going to work” and the property owners withdrew their annexation request that night.


Allen reiterated that the way the project was handled was a big part of why he chose to run, while Brewer added that details of the project could have been communicated better to the public. Both candidates expressed they are against Lexington becoming a tourist destination.


Gerace, a former member of the town’s Planning Commission, emphasized the need to consider traffic first and foremost when it comes to such large projects, particularly when it comes to understanding how it will impact intersections in the area.


With this election, Lexington’s council will experience more change than it has in recent elections with a new person serving as mayor, at least two new members joining council and a new town administrator having recently been hired.


Pocta said she believes it is an amazing opportunity for the town and the council members who are elected.


“I think it creates a good opportunity for a lot more conversations to be had that might not, because people know how things work, how they always worked,” she said. “This is going to create a lot of openings for more conversations to be had because people need to understand how things work when you have new folks on board.”


Gerace said that when it comes to working with the new mayor and council he believes he has a great sense of community.


Michaels said that as a council they would need to communicate with the citizens more diligently to gauge what their concerns are in order to make better decisions as a governing body.


The town’s hospitality tax divided candidates. Allen expressed strong opposition to continuing with the tax, adding that if you want to encourage growth, you tax less. 


Brewer said that he would want to see a fully itemized list of where the hospitality tax goes.


Lyle posited that the hospitality tax, which he said was very controversial when it was first installed in 2015, is one of the fairest taxes in the town, as it is applied uniformly to all who spend money at bars and restaurants. He added that a majority of the people who pay that tax come from outside the town.


“When we removed a sunset clause from the H-tax last year, we did a permanent 21% reduction to the millage of property taxes for town residents,” Lyle said. “Simple shifting of the money, there was no additional tax.”


Michaels said she believes most citizens would agree more with the hospitality tax if they knew exactly where it was being used.


Recently, the town has taken steps toward helping business owners within, starting a small business advisory committee focused on helping businesses within town limits.


Graham, a local business owner, said the town needs a more fluid process for regulating businesses, adding that business owners he has talked to want a clearer, step-by-step process for how to navigate doing business in town.


All candidates agreed traffic is a continuing issue, though there were different opinions on the effectiveness of the town's fully deployed traffic signalization system, which extends out of downtown along U.S. Highway 378.


Graham voiced support for the signalization system, saying it will take time for the system to be fully figured out. He added that a fair amount of the town's traffic is not generated by the town specifically, but by people from the county going through Lexington. 


Pocta said the system is a piece of the solution when it comes to traffic, adding that there are multiple traffic projects in the works. 


Lyle said the system is working, but it’s only part of the solution, citing statistics scared with the town by traffic engineers that the system has reduced travel times along the highway by 25%.


Brewer said a lot of people have expressed frustration due to the system needing more tweaking, adding that the use of bluetooth technology concerns him about potential future use and how it would apply to a violation of privacy.


Allen expressed a similar sentiment, mentioning that he has had a lot of conversations with residents who don’t like that lights in town have cameras and he would like to get rid of them.


“We are Lexington, the people of Lexington you do not want to be surveilled by the government,” Allen said. “I'm a small government guy. I would like to get rid of the cameras. I don't believe in government surveillance.”


Lyle responded that he is not aware of any credible evidence that people are being surveilled through the town’s traffic cameras.


Another topic was the town’s Vision Plan, from which two key projects – the Icehouse Project surrounding Lexington’s downtown amphitheater and the expansion and renovation of the nearby Virginia Hylton Park – have either been completed or soon will be. The candidates discussed how best to update the plan moving forward.


Gerace said he would first examine the current plan before talking with council, interfacing with focus groups and residents to figure out the next steps with large projects.


Brewer mentioned that he’d like to look at it in terms of things that would be “nice to do” and things that the town “must do.” Allen echoed this sentiment, calling some of the things the town works on “vanity projects,” claiming that it’s the people, not the parks, that make Lexington an attractive place to live.


Graham emphasized that while it’s important to tailor the Vision Plan to the people living here now, it also has to look forward to the people who will live here in the future and what will fulfill their needs and make them happy to live in Lexington.


“If we don’t plan at all for the future, if we only worry about the now, that creates shortsightedness,” he said.


Before all members of council raised their hand when asked if they believed preserving the town’s historic buildings was important, Pocta put a strong emphasis on why it’s crucial.


“I think that we could help incentivize and certainly help foster” the preservation and responsible use of historic buildings, she said. “Because that's the root of Lexington. That helps show our personality, where we come from as a town and as a community.”

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