Author Archives: Van Meter Pettit


Lexington Herald Leader
Published: Sunday, December 24, 2000
Section: Opinions and Ideas
Page: H1

This time last year we showcased water pollution in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and said Kentucky should clean it up.

Our suggested resolution this year is to atone for the Bluegrass’s dirty little secret: Town Branch.

The stream that literally shaped Lexington is classified as too nasty to support aquatic life.

The pollution is the byproduct of almost everything that has ever gone on in or near downtown: industry; runoff from vehicles parked on acres of asphalt or abandoned in junkyards; a leaking city dump that predates landfill standards; and, perhaps, forgotten straight-pipes discharging raw sewage.

As unappealing as all this is, what most stands out about Town Branch is not its pollution, but its potential.

A ribbon of water and earth, Town Branch rises from its man-made confinement just west of Rupp Arena and ripples between remarkably preserved, 150-year-old, dry-laid stone walls. The stream meanders past interesting examples of industrial architecture, including a distillery that begs to be reincarnated through adaptive reuse, and the ruin of an 1820s wool mill that was once Lexington’s jail.

Beyond New Circle Road, the stream traverses open country, coming close enough to Masterson Station to make the city park a natural terminus.

The stream’s potential has inspired a group to begin working to create the Town Branch Trail. Though this visionary project can’t be accomplished quickly or cheaply, Lexington should resolve to make it happen.

The support of local, state and federal governments will be required, along with the cooperation of corporate and individual landowners.

Other places have accomplished bigger waterway restorations. These projects pay lasting dividends by making cities more attractive places to live and do business.

Described as a “linear park,” Town Branch Trail would give downtown workers and residents a natural place to walk, run and bike. Quick access to the landscape that distinguishes Lexington from other mid-size cities would be a terrific selling point.

Town Branch could become the strongest strand in a citywide web of greenways. This natural amenity would encourage residential and commercial development downtown and to the southwest of downtown all the way to South Broadway and the University of Kentucky.

The trail would tie Lexington’s historic past to a more livable future.

The city’s first permanent structure, a fort, went up in 1779 along Town Branch near a canebrake that became the corner of Main and Mill streets.

The creek front was called the Town Commons until 1790, when it was renamed Water Street. In 1793, horse racing on Water Street was confined to the lower end and only for the purpose of showing studs.

As the city grew, flooding became a nuisance. Town Branch, which is born south of Winchester Road near East Third Street, was routed underground through downtown and all but forgotten — until now.

Restoring Town Branch to a central role in the life of Lexington would be a precious gift to future generations.


Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)

September 24, 2000
Section: City & Region
Edition: Final
Page: C1

Don Edwards, Herald-Leader Columnist
“The very form of our town came from the creek.”
–Van Meter Pettit

We’ve driven over it and past it thousands of times, but many of us don’t notice that the Town Branch of Elkhorn Creek is there.
It’s not that easy to find the middle fork of the Elkhorn. From the east, it runs under downtown Lexington through a brick-vaulted waterway, then comes up near the huge parking lot behind Rupp Arena.
If you drive to the west end of the lot, there’s a double line of trees on the south.
You have to stop and get out of the car, walk over and look through the yellowing leaves to see sunlight bouncing off the quiet water.
It’s like an oasis in a desert of asphalt — an anomaly, a geographical antique left from pioneer days.
Yesterday, as part of ideaFestival, a couple of dozen people sat in the first-floor theater of the Lexington Public Library and listened to architect Van Meter Pettit, 33, talk about his favorite idea:
“Town Branch Trail.”
The idea is to turn Lexington’s oldest, polluted waterway into a new kind of landscape feature, a trail for walking, running and biking that runs alongside the creek past 19th-century retaining walls; 200-year-old houses; and buildings that once housed horse stables and woolen mills.
“It would connect parts of the city like a necklace,” Pettit said, “linking downtown to McConnell Springs Park and Masterson Station Park.”
When you see downtown “only from the perspective of four-foot sidewalks and whizzing cars, you feel crowded,” he said, “but if you could get on a trail system that eventually went 20 miles, it wouldn’t seem crowded.”
Pettit took the idea to Urban County Council member Sandy Shafer. Now Town Branch Trail is a project of the Friends of the Parks of Fayette County Inc., a non-profit citizens’ group.
The Town Branch area, Pettit said, is one that was once important to the city, but it was long ago abandoned in favor of business and residential growth.
Now it’s an area of poor neighborhoods and industrial expanse. “We wouldn’t do that nowadays: put kids, heavy machinery and industry on top of each other,” he said.
“But this is a way to bail out poor neighborhoods, give them a new life.”
Ultimately, the pollution of Town Branch is a situation that’s going to have to be cleaned up anyway, he said, so why not sooner than later?
He envisioned replanting native plants along the creek corridor, and he reminded his listeners that park space is not just for walkers, joggers, bicycle riders and student tours: “The people who work in the area near McConnell Springs Park go there to eat lunch. It’s a resource for everybody.”
I listened to Pettit’s presentation. I liked the idea, and I wondered if it would become a reality some time in the 21st century.
If you’re interested in helping with, donating to or merely learning more about Town Branch Trail, you can reach Pettit at
Pettit’s father, H. Foster Pettit, a former Lexington mayor, was in the theater listening to his son’s presentation.
Maybe a new generation will change a very old Town Branch for the better.
Don Edwards can be reached at (859) 231-3211, (800) 950-6397 or


Public Concerns for Trails and Greenways

Taken from the Iowa Department of Transportation

Concern / Issue and Possible responses

1) Liability risks involved in constructing or designating bicycle facilities are too great.

In most states, recreational use statutes protect adjacent property owners along trails.
Ninety-two percent of rail-trails are owned and managed by a public agency. In every case, the liability risks associated with the trail are folded into the public agency’s umbrella insurance policy.
Public agencies can reduce their potential exposure to legal action by incorporating the following activities: use accepted facility planning and design guidelines (AASHTO or FHWA); apply common maintenance standards to public facilities; monitor the use of facilities and be aware of any developing problems; and post warnings to users regarding actual or potential hazards.

2) Multi-use trails are mainly for recreation and don’t serve a transportation purpose.

Rail-trails in many states are used for transportation purposes. On trails in Seattle, Washington; North Virginia; and Clearwater, Florida; 39 percent of the weekday use is for commuting purposes.
All automobile trips are not solely for transportation purposes, up to one-quarter of all automobile trips are for social and recreational reasons.

3) Our community cannot afford bicycling and walking facilities.

Most communities can afford the federal government’s required match of 20 percent of the project cost. On average, communities contribute 27 percent of a project’s total cost.
Trails can generate additional revenue for public agencies.

Local businesses of all kinds, from antique shops and bed & breakfast establishments to hardware and even clothing stores, frequently see an increase in sales when a trail opens on a previously unused railroad corridor. New businesses such as snack bars and bicycle shops often open to accommodate trail users.
Approximately 5 to 22 cents is saved (through reduced pollution, damage to the environment, etc.) for every automobile mile displaced by walking and bicycling.

4) People are afraid to use bicycle and pedestrian pathways.

Statistics indicate that crime on trails occurs no more frequently than in any other public place.
Safety on trails can be increased through design practices. Lighting, elimination of dead ends, aesthetics and paying close attention to the design of tunnels and underpasses can reduce safety concerns.
Providing active management of the facility, including garbage pickup, mowing, etc., indicates to users and potential abusers that a local agency is monitoring the trail.
Management practices such as regular observation of trails by volunteer trail patrols or police officers, placement of emergency phones, and vegetation maintenance can also increase safety.

Continue reading

Survey of Town Branch Creek’s dry-laid stone banks

Great thanks to the Dry Stone Conservancy for conducting this survey.

Preliminary notes on the condition and extent of the dry stone masonry retaining walls. Town Branch Creek – Lexington, Kentucky

These notes were prepared following a visual examination carried out on February 11, 2000. Measurements were taken wherever possible, but difficulty of access on certain sections dictate that some measurements are approximate. The inspection looked at the Town Branch from Rupp Car Park to New Circle Road. The Town Branch is a creek that flows through the center of Lexington and drains broadly following the Old Frankfort Pike. The area through which it flows has been largely industrial for many years. As Lexington expanded, parts of the Town Branch were channeled and controlled with dry stone retaining walls, presumably to limit or eliminate the flood plain and to increase the availability of valuable land near the town center. These aims would have been achieved by back filling behind the retaining walls, thereby raising the grade. Dry stone masonry was extensively used throughout the Bluegrass, and this region is well known for the rock fences that still line many of the roads. Less well known is the fact that dry stone was extensively used in numerous other applications, forming the infrastructure of early agriculture, industry and transportation. Dry stone retaining walls controlled erosion and flooding on many of the creeks in the region, and those lining Town Branch represent an excellent example. These walls form the most complete example in the Lexington area and are collectively the greatest surviving concentration within the Urban County Boundary. They are therefore of considerable historic interest and importance. These walls were well built by skilled artisans. This is an important point, for much dry stone building was of inferior quality, particularly that undertaken from the late 19th C. onwards. Evidence for this lies, amongst other factors, in tight course work, adequate width of the walls and well executed core packing. There is no doubt, however, that the walls are in poor condition today. There appear to be three key factors involved.

Lack of maintenance.

Dry stone masonry has a long life, often measured in centuries. Functional and stable, minor damage to dry masonry is often ignored until significant remedial work is required. In a high stress situation, as is the case in flood control, small sections can be adversely affected by fast moving heavy debris, such as tree trunks. If these are not repaired quickly, the damage will spread with each subsequent spate. A complicating consideration may be that any damage occurs long after original construction, so that skilled personnel to effect repairs are no longer available. Two further factors have contributed to the current condition of the walls. Trees and shrubs have been allowed to grow uncontrolled over and through the masonry. The power of vegetation to damage any form of masonry is well documented, and the sheer number of plants flanking the Town Branch has had a major effect. Lastly, some of the retaining walls are built on bedrock. Usually, this is the most stable foundation, but in this instance the ledges have been eroded in places by the dissolving action of the water. This has led to failure at the toe and movement or collapse of the overlying wall.

The exceeding of load bearing capacity.

The design of a dry stone masonry retaining wall is governed by the likely stresses to be placed upon it. the loading and height increase, modifications to foundations, batter and core are required. Some of the retaining walls were backfilled. Of these, some then had to contend with the installation of railway lines in close proximity. The vibration on these lines may well have cause lateral creep that moved adjacent retaining walls outwards, particularly in the early years. In places, they have overturned. Many of the remaining backfilled walls were surcharged to a considerable height. Material has been tipped from properties adjacent to the walls; this now runs up and away from the top of the walls at a steep angle. When saturated, this material will yield pressure in excess of the bearing capacity of the underlying walls. In addition, silt creeps into the body of the wall itself , compounding the problem.

The post construction insertion of other structures.

Construction activity has continued in the years since the Town Branch was lined with dry stone masonry. A number of culverts and outflows have been installed of varying sizes. Sometimes, these were correctly inserted by re building the stonework around the pipe. Frequently, ditch was excavated to the creek, the culvert installed and the damaged stonework ignored. Major structures including railway bridges have also been installed, again with inadequate tying to the masonry in many instances.

Description and extent of Town Branch retaining walls Adjacent to Rupp Arena car park, to Patterson St. bridge.

On the north side of the car park is a retaining wall. 121′ is currently exposed, ranging in height from 2′ to 6′; more may be hidden beneath material that has been deposited along the banking. The wall is in fair condition and may well survive in its current state for many more years. There are two small gaps which require some 9′ and 6′ to be dismantled and rebuilt. On the south side of the car park, the Town Branch emerges from a culvert. Some half way along this section, the creek has been edged by two substantial retaining walls that terminate at the Patterson St. bridge. The north wall is 106′ long, and ranges in height from zero to about 8′. 30′ of the taller section has failed completely, the remainder has moved substantially and is in poor condition. The south wall measures 154′, and varies in height from 4′ to 12′. 40′ section has completely failed. This wall has also moved substantially to the extent that most overhangs the footing and is therefore close to further collapse. The wall has been surcharged by large amounts of debris comprised of soil and rubble. Much of the original stone for both walls is still present. Both require total rebuilding, and it is recommended that if this takes place the walls be increased in height by 1′ to 18″ to better retain the banking. Certain trees will need to be removed, and the final backfill be graded to a safer slope. Scaffolding would be required for the rebuilding. Currently, costs for rebuilding walls of this height range between $500 and $650 per foot length in total. This figure could be somewhat reduced with volunteer labor.

Section 2.
From Patterson Street bridge to railway bridge near Driscoll Street.

This section runs adjacent to the railway yard, extending 2,200′, and contains the greatest number of walls. The creek has been retained intermittently all along this portion. The water course also cuts through ledge rock along parts of this section, which forms solid banking at these points. The height of these rock ledges varies considerably, and where only two to three feet high, have retaining walls atop to bring the channel to an even 6′ or so of depth. On the south side, a disused rail track was supported by further walls and these also run over rock ledges, giving an overall height (ledge and wall) of approximately 12′. On portions of both sides, debris has been tipped, surcharging the walls. This length of creek is a most interesting example of blending dry stone masonry into the natural rock faces. In places, it is hard to distinguish dry stone wall from creek bank ledge. There is an unusual support wall still standing, whereby the original masons built underneath a rock overhang so that a further wall could be built above without fear of this overhang breaking. Moving west from Patterson Street Bridge, the north side has a 200′ length of 10′ wall; the largest wall in this section. The material used at this point appears somewhat inferior, as there is substantial decay of the face stones evident. Replacement of this wall would require the use of replacement rock. Keeping with the north side, there are further walls intermittently spaced, measuring approximately 20′ @ 5′ in height, 100′ @ 6′, 200′ @ 7′, 300′ @3′(overœledge), and approximately 450′ of low retaining wall, 4′ tall. On the south side, again from Patterson Street bridge, there is 60′ of eight foot high retaining wall, followed by sections spaced at varying intervals, as follows. Approximately 60′ of 6′ high wall. This is built over a 6′ high ledge rebuilding would be difficult and require scaffolding. Approximately 5′ of 4′ high wall supporting ledge (see above). 100′ of retaining wall, 6′ tall. In total, there are approximately 1520′ of retaining walls, all of which require rebuilding. In addition, it appears that there may have been lengths of wall that have totally disappeared or been buried by fill. If a program is eventually instituted to restore the Town Branch, the clearance and preparation required should reveal formal evidence of such walls. The cost of rebuilding the low retaining walls, such as the 4′ tall north bank wall, would be in the region of $90 per linear foot. This figure includes new material as required. The taller walls and those requiring scaffolding will need to be formally priced at a later date on wall by wall basis.

Section 3.
Railway Bridge near Driscoll Street to bridge under Old Frankfort Pike.

This portion encompasses that part of the Town Branch that runs south of Old Frankfort Pike. There is no stone masonry as far as could be ascertained (difficult and intermittent access) until the disused, half-standing bridge is reached. From this point until the OFP road bridge, there are dry stone retaining walls as follows: North side. There are approximately 420′ of 6′ tall retaining wall. This is in good to fair order for the most part, except for a 35′ collapse adjacent to the bridge. In addition, a small length has been concreted, which in the longer term should be restored to the original stone masonry. On the south side, again running east west from the derelict bridge, there is an 80′ section that has totally collapsed for virtually the whole length, and in addition, most of the material has washed away. The next 300′ is in fair condition. The final 40′ to the road bridge has again completely collapsed, but the stone has remained adjacent for the most part. The two collapsed sections will be impacted by the impending renewal and widening of the bridge, and representations should be made to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to ensure that these retaining walls are repaired and tie in to the new bridge abutments.

Section 4.
Old Frankfort Pike bridge to bridge for road number 1723.

The Town Branch is lined on both sides with 5′ high retaining walls for approximately 350′, beginning at the east end. These walls are in fair to good order, and appear to have been rebuilt sometime in the past. Little attention is required at present, although in the longer term they should be checked over so that missing stones and pins are replaced. The walls are virtually missing near the 1723 road bridge, however, and the bank appears vulnerable to erosion in this area. car park on the north side and warehousing on the south side will make replacing these walls difficult and relatively expensive. Section 5. Road bridge for 1723 to New Circle. Access was difficult for this final section. The creek was inspected in eight places and no further evidence of dry stone masonry was found. close inspection of this entire section may reveal otherwise. The Town Branch currently has approximately 440′ of retaining walls of various heights. If a rebuilding program is instituted, then some 1970′ is now in need of total rebuild, and about 1470′ may be left, at least for the present. The nature of the walls makes rebuilding difficult for the most part. Representative prices based on February 2000 data have been given to yield guidance as to the scale of the project, but it should be carefully noted that each wall will need to be accurately priced at the time. Cost savings could be made in the following areas by using volunteers and donations in kind (e.g. machinery). The clearance of rubbish from the creek bed and banks. The cutting and removal of vegetation from the walls. (The two items above are not included in the sample prices given). Stripping down the old walls, sorting out clean, reusable stone, and disposal of waste fill. The hauling in of new rock. In addition, volunteers under supervision could give limited help and gain some experience in the rebuilding process.

The Dry Stone Conservancy
3533 Winding Drive
Lexington, KY 40517
14th February, 2000


(from LFUCG website,
History of the Town Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant

The Town Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant began operation in 1919 and was one of the first sewage treatment plants in this section of the United States. The facility is located on Town Branch north of Old Frankfort Pike approximately 1/2 mile inside New Circle Road. The original plant consisted of Imhoff tanks, trickling filters and sludge drying beds. In 1935 sludge digesters and pretreatment screens were added and the plant had a capacity of approximately 6.0 mgd. In 1947 two additional sludge digesters were constructed. A major expansion was begun in 1960 and completed in 1963. This construction was comprised of facilities which converted the plant into a 12 mgd activated sludge plant utilizing the Kraus process. In 1971 another expansion to Town Branch was begun which increased the capacity to 18.0 mgd adding sludge disposal facilities which ultimately eliminated the use of sludge lagoon and drying beds at this site. Construction was completed in 1974.

In 1981 a Process Alternative Study selected a single stage aeration system with a capacity of 30.0 mgd to meet the future needs of the service area and to meet the more stringent effluent limits. The design was also required to add dechlorination to the facility unit processes. Due to the magnitude of the project the project was segmented both in design and construction. Design began in 1984 with design on the remaining phases starting in 1985 and completed in July, 1987. The plant is designed to treat wastewater generated from approximately 60 percent of Fayette County serving an eventual population of 130,000. Under normal operation, the treatment plant is expected to remove in excess of 90 percent of the incoming loads of total suspended solids, 5-day biochemical oxygen demand, and ammonia nitrogen. This advanced secondary treatment facility is designed for a flow of 30 MGD but the plant can hydraulically treat a maximum flow of 64 MGD.

A network of pipes and pumps located within Lexington/Fayette County is used to collect untreated wastewater from the community and transport it to the Town Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant. At design conditions, almost 11 billion gallons of wastewater are treated on an annual basis.

The first treatment units at Town Branch are “preliminary treatment” processes where potentially equipment-damaging materials are removed. Large debris is removed as wastewater flows through trash racks. Next, finer materials are removed by mechanical fine screens. Screened flow is directed to grit chambers where abrasive materials such as sand are removed. “Primary treatment” follows the headworks where the velocity of the wastewater flow is slowed in primary clarifiers so that solids can be settled and lighter materials such as grease are floated out of the wastewater.

Biological treatment follows primary clarification where the aeration process converts remaining fine and dissolved organic pollutants into biological solids. Air is applied to the aeration tank contents which allows aerobic bacteria to assimilate pollutants contained in the wastewater. Ammonia is also removed in the aeration process. Final clarifiers follow the aeration process where the biological solids separate and settle from the wastewater as the velocity is decreased.

Flow leaving the final clarifiers is directed to the disinfection process. Chlorine is used to disinfect the plant effluent before it is discharged to the Town Branch. Sulfer dioxide is used to remove residual chlorine. Wastewater leaving the disinfection process flows over a cascade step aerator which adds oxygen to the effluent.

As wastewater is treated as described above, by-products are generated. Screenings and grit are dewatered and then delivered to a landfill. All sludges are thickened either by gravity thickeners or centrifuge and then are pumped to the anaerobic digesters. Anaerobic bacteria reduce solids in the sludge to a stable and dewaterable product. Water is removed from the digested sludge by mechanical belt filter presses and then the sludge is trucked to a landfill for ultimate disposal.