Two horses standing in a field with fences and a large white barn in the background.
A horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

Adopted in the 1950s to protect the city’s iconic horse farms, the urban growth boundary of Lexington, Kentucky, no longer seems unassailable.

When it comes to city planning in the United States, the drafting of a comprehensive plan is usually the kumbaya stage—a time of heady value statements, setting the stage for potential zoning fights down the road. But with Lexington, Kentucky’s 2019 comprehensive plan, which wrapped up earlier this year, those fights materialized quickly and took center stage.

Through heated hearings at the Lexington Planning Commission and a number of contentious votes at the Lexington City Council, the controversy centered on one key issue: Lexington’s greenbelt, which limits how far out the city can expand into the countryside.

Businesspeople and developers argued that a lack of developable land in Lexington is driving businesses away and housing costs up, while defenders of the greenbelt countered that there is still ample land to develop without extending the boundary further. (The greenbelt lies fully within Fayette County, which merged with Lexington in 1974.)

Oregon often gets the credit for pioneering greenbelts (or urban growth boundaries) in the U.S., but it was Lexington that adopted the nation’s first in 1958. Its failure to get credit for this might come down to the unusual politics surrounding its greenbelt. Whereas the 1973 Oregon push for a greenbelt tapped into emerging environmental sensibilities, Lexington’s earlier push was mostly focused on protecting the interests of a particular industry.

A zoning map of Lexington shows the greenbelt surrounding the city’s built-up areas. (Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government)

At the time of the greenbelt adoption, the politically powerful horse industry was bumping up against a booming suburban population and a growing service-sector economy. Local legend has it that the greenbelt was a response to suburban construction spooking the region’s acclaimed thoroughbred horses (who are famously skittish). But urban economics gives us a more lucid explanation: As postwar suburban tracts and office parks started to spring up, land values increased, pricing out land-hungry horse pastures and tobacco fields.

The emerging mixed-suburban landscape also posed a threat to the bluegrass region’s bucolic aesthetic—a problem, since property values in horse country are partly maintained by demand from the gentlemen farmers and international oligarchs drawn to the countryside’s aristocratic flavor. A row of tract houses, to say nothing of Googie fast-food joints, doesn’t exactly fit into that vision.

It was this confluence of factors—rising demand for suburban land, and a cultural and economic elite intent on surviving—that paved the way for Lexington’s greenbelt.

But Lexington has changed a lot over the past 60 years. In 1958, it was a town of 60,000 residents, with many working in agriculture or related industries. The city’s first modern medical complex was only two years old, and industrial outfits like IBM and Trane were only taking their first steps into the city.

Today, Lexington is a city of nearly 350,000, with a diverse economy centered around healthcare, education, and advanced manufacturing. Many of Lexington’s new residents are economic migrants from the Rust Belt and the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky—my parents among them. These new Lexingtonians have little connection to the horse industry.

The Square, a block of 16 buildings in downtown Lexington with stores, bars and restaurants, offices, and galleries. The urban growth boundary has directed the city’s growth inward to central neighborhoods, as well as outward, to suburban areas beyond the greenbelt. (aceshot1/Shutterstock)

Despite the city’s metamorphosis, maintaining the greenbelt continues to draw support from many quarters. According to the pro-greenbelt group Fayette Alliance, the horse industry is still a billion-dollar industry and draws in thousands of tourists each year. Beyond its economic impact, it continues to play an outsized role in shaping Lexington’s identity—the city is branded by boosters as the “Horse Capital of the World.” Since adjusting or eliminating the greenbelt could threaten this, many Lexingtonians are understandably reluctant.

But Lexington is also growing, and it needs room for new housing. Many, including homebuilder groups, have suggested that a growing population and rising incomes are pushing against the limits of what the greenbelt will currently allow, with a scarcity of developable land driving housing prices up.

Indeed, for the first time in recent memory, housing affordability has emerged as a major issue in the city, as Lexington’s historically low housing costs rise. Partly as a response, housing demand has shifted both inward and outward—driving gentrification in the city’s historically African-American North Lexington neighborhood as new construction shifts to far-flung suburbs beyond the greenbelt.

While the approved 2019 comprehensive plan for Lexington opted to keep the existing greenbelt in place, it’s clear that current land-use patterns aren’t working. And with Lexington’s chief assessor David O’Neill projecting an additional 40,000 residents by 2025, the present housing scarcity likely isn’t sustainable going forward, either. If Lexington is going to keep its greenbelt, more housing needs to go somewhere.

To their credit, Lexington’s planners have taken up the issue, pointing out that additional housing doesn’t need to go exclusively on the city’s periphery. As official planning documents argue, the city is still full of infill development opportunities, from existing walkable neighborhoods to frayed commercial corridors. To this end, officials have already taken small steps toward allowing more transit-oriented housing in declining mall zones, and a new mechanism known as “Placebuilder” aims to ease up on the permitting hurdles facing mixed-use urban infill.

At the same time, Lexington’s zoning remains inhospitable to walkable infill development in most key respects: mixed-use and multifamily zoning are still rare, minimum parking requirements are still high, and most of the city’s dynamic inner suburbs are locked down by historic districts. If Lexington officials are serious about supporting infill, a deeper look at the city’s zoning code is likely in order.

Lexington’s greenbelt still looks pretty healthy. Historically, Lexington adjusted it incrementally every decade or so to accommodate population growth (most U.S. urban areas with greenbelts do this), but it hasn’t been adjusted in over 19 years now. Buy-in for the city’s “Horse Capital” identity remains strong. But the 2019 comprehensive plan exposed mounting concerns over housing affordability and job growth. Will the nation’s first greenbelt survive? The answer depends on what happens between now and the opening salvos of the 2023 comprehensive plan.

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