The unlikely relationship between Kentucky’s horse-racing tradition and Urban Growth Boundaries (USGBC Kentucky) | U.S. Green Building Council
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Learn how urban growth boundaries can preserve farmland and mitigate human impact.

A version of this article was originally published on Medium.com. Read the original article.

As Metro Louisville begins the process to update its Comprehensive Plan, Cornerstone 2020, there is an interesting historic and strategic juxtaposition in Kentucky’s next largest city, Lexington.

Embedded within the richness of Kentucky’s horse-racing tradition, showcased every first Saturday in May, is a celebration of a land in which the urban city is but the urban city, and the rural countryside is but the rural countryside. For at least a moment, we believe that they each have a unique and distinct value, and attempts to infringe one upon the other shall be denied.

While the world descends on Churchill Downs in Louisville for one weekend a year for the Run for the Roses, a lesser-known, yet arguably more quintessentially Kentucky racing experience and center of horse racing industry is Keeneland Racecourse, about one hour east of Louisville in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky’s horse economy, primarily centered around Lexington, creates serious economic value—approximately $4 billion annually. Furthermore, world-class horse farms require a lot of land. However, the Bluegrass farmlands also have a qualitative value that mutually supports their economic value. While sitting in Keeneland’s clubhouse, you are treated to an unobstructed view of Kentucky’s natural beauty for as far as the eye can see; farmland that is meant to be farmland. However, this bucolic view is not coincidental.

Urban Growth Boundaries preserve rural farm land by focusing urban development 

The land beyond the far turn has been intentionally conserved. In 1958, with the purpose of protecting the area’s lucrative, beautiful, and signature Bluegrass farmland from being threatened and fragmented by an incremental dissolution of urban development into the surrounding rural areas, Lexington adopted an urban service boundary within their comprehensive plan. This was the first time any such restriction on development had been adopted in the United States, now made popular by eco-conscious cities like Portland, Oregon. The boundary required most urban development to take place within the designated area and restricted development outside that line.

An urban service boundary is one of many strategies utilized by the public sector to set limits on development in rural areas by restricting the limit to which costly urban services will be built and maintained. In many planning circumstances, a community may decide to conserve specific lands for natural or predominantly natural uses, or restrict and regulate development to allow for the persistence of low-intensity uses and perhaps the prevention of development. In Lexington, the minimum lot size for residential development outside the service boundary is 40 acres, and most commercial development is prohibited.

As of 2011, Lexington had 6,700 acres of vacant land within the urban service boundary, of which 4,500 acres was designated for residential growth, according to Jim Duncan, the city’s director of long-range planning. While there have been several revisions to the urban services boundary since its original adoption in 1958, community leaders continue to value its original purpose. By agreeing to keep the existing boundary in the 2011 Comprehensive Plan, the community recognizes that “building our brand and our economy means that first we preserve what is special and unique about Lexington — our Bluegrass landscape,” according to Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.

The fallacy of suburbanization and the economics of sustaining basic local services

Part of the promise of post-World War II suburbanization was that each and every homeowner could have a slice of this refreshing natural world right outside their doorstep. For many citizens, this allure is still attractive and contributes to a continual expansion of urban development as the supply of that small and private slice of the natural world is just outside the boundary of the last home’s small, private land. What many municipalities across the country, including Lexington, are recognizing is that such incremental expansion comes at a significant cost, straining scarce resources in the near term and usustainable in the long term.

“According to a 2005 LFUCG study, it will cost, on average, $16,529.00/acre or a total of $117 million to lay new sewer lines in new development areas outside of the Urban Service Boundary. This number covers just sewer lines, not major roadway improvements, police, fire, schools, or other infrastructural needs.” — Fayette Alliance

In Lexington, in 1998, for every dollar of revenue the city gained from residential development, it spent $.93 to service the property. On the other hand, for every dollar of revenue the city gained from Fayette County farms, it spent $1.69 to service them — creating a net gain for the city. Adopting an urban growth boundary allows the underlying municipal infrastructure and services to be supported by more people and more value-producing uses. Governments would be wise to actively incorporate strategies like urban growth boundaries that extract more value out of past public spending and make more responsible investments of tax dollars in the future.

And finally, municipalities would be wise to consider similar strategies that measure and mitigate the impact human development has on the environment. The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) is based on the understanding that land is a crucial component of the built environment and can be planned, designed, developed and maintained to protect and enhance the benefits we derive from healthy, functioning landscapes. By recognizing the negative externalities of unchecked urban growth and encouraging greater population and building density, we encourage an urban development pattern that has a smaller per-capita impact on the environment. Our living development patterns should be less expansive and fragmented, and more oriented around human-powered mobility, at a more concentrated scale, and less dependent on internal combustion and fuel-powered transportation, such as the individual automobile, to access the places and amenities we need to live.