Smart Growth for the Bluegrass Region

Jean Scott and Peter Pollock, January 1, 1999

Like many fast-growing areas across the country, the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky is dealing with two complementary growth management issues:

  • How to manage growth that takes place within the 40-year-old urban growth boundary around Lexington and in the smaller cities and towns of the surrounding counties;
  • How to best preserve the unique rural character of the countryside beyond urban growth areas.

Civic leadership for this critical planning process is provided by Bluegrass Tomorrow, a non-profit, community-based organization formed in 1989 to ensure that the region’s extraordinary resources-physical, natural and fiscal-are soundly managed for the future. Bluegrass Tomorrow works within the seven-county area for solutions that build a strong and efficient economy, a protected environment and livable communities. The organization accomplishes its goals by promoting regional dialogue and collaborative goal-setting among diverse interests, facilitating public, private and corporate sector cooperation, and developing innovative planning solutions to growth and conservation concerns.

The guiding framework for Bluegrass Tomorrow is the Bluegrass Regional Vision that was developed in 1993 through a broad-based regional planning process. In seeking to maintain a clear definition between town and country, this Vision reflects the region’s legacy of a large urban center (Lexington) surrounded by smaller, distinct cities and towns. These communities are separated and yet connected by a beautiful greenbelt of agricultural land and areas rich in environmental and historic resources.

Smart Growth Choices

Continuing a partnership established in the early 1990s, the Lincoln Institute and Bluegrass Tomorrow cosponsored a conference in October that focused on smart growth choices for the region. The conference was designed to bring together public officials, business interests and concerned citizens to revisit the Regional Vision, discuss why that Vision remains important for good business, good cities and a good environment, and to explore how it is being unraveled by current development pressures. Through a combination of keynote addresses, plenary sessions and interactive workshops, participants learned about smart growth principles and evaluated the appropriateness of various approaches and models to their region.

William Hudnut, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., discussed the characteristics of smart growth, which are also the goals of the Bluegrass Regional Vision:

  • Begin with the end in mind and work back from there to plan in advance.
  • Use incentives to guide development to areas that make sense.
  • Think, plan and act as a region and work out issues through collaboration and teamwork.
  • Make the commitment to preserve farmland and open space.
  • Demonstrate environmental sensitivity, recognizing that “we borrow the land from our children.”
  • Value compact, mixed-use development that supports alternative choices of transportation.
  • Provide certainty for developers with less contention.
  • Reuse older areas of cities and towns including abandoned lands and obsolete buildings.
  • Preserve and reinvest in traditional downtowns and neighborhoods. “You can’t be a suburb of nothing.”
  • Create a sense of place and community.

The conference program highlighted three smart growth themes, offered illustrative case studies from other regions in the U.S., and provided opportunities for participant feedback on promising directions and possible obstacles.

Planning and Paying for Infrastructure

The Bluegrass region’s ability to create incentives to promote smart growth practices is often limited because local governments are always in the business of playing “catch up.” This creates a problem because of the need for local government to be able to use public infrastructure to promote development in areas appropriate for growth, away from rural conservation areas, and to help in the purchase of development rights to protect the Bluegrass farmland.

Paul Tischler, a fiscal, economic and planning consultant from Bethesda, Maryland, advocated that government use a capital improvement plan to address this problem. This planning tool allows governments to create a comprehensive approach to current and future needs in one integrated program. It establishes goals for what projects are needed and how and when to pay for them. Peter Pollock of the Boulder, Colorado, Planning Department presented a case study of how his city has implemented a capital improvement program that addresses capital facilities planning and budgeting, equity concerns and linkage of service availability to development approval.

Infill Development

Promotion of more intense development and redevelopment within established cities and towns in the Bluegrass is a critical smart growth issue. It encourages more efficient use of the region’s highly valued Bluegrass farmland and makes better use of existing infrastructure. Too often, however, developers are required to reduce the density of development to respond to neighborhood concerns about incompatibility with the existing community character. As a result, land within urban areas is being used less efficiently, which increases the pressure to convert farmland on the edge of developed areas into future home sites.

To address this problem, Nore Winter, an urban design review consultant in Boulder, Colorado, discussed how communities can make sure that infill and redevelopment enhance the community and the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhood. He explained how to avoid “generica” by defining community character and using design guidelines to improve new developments with visual examples that demonstrate the type of development that is preferred. David Rice, executive director of the Norfolk, Virginia, Redevelopment and Housing Authority, shared examples of infill development projects in that city, which has successfully created quality neighborhoods, encouraged community participation and addressed difficult zoning, design and permitting concerns.

Regional Cooperation

The seven central Bluegrass counties constitute a highly integrated region in terms of land use, economy, and natural and cultural resources. Decisions in one county can have a long-term impact on another county. Although Bluegrass Tomorrow has drawn the region together to work on these issues, the current rate of change requires more intensive planning and coordination.

Curtis Johnson, president and chairman of the Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, explored with conference participants many examples of additional steps that can be taken to promote regional cooperation. The good news for the Bluegrass, Johnson noted in his opening observations, is that unlike some regions of the U.S., the Bluegrass is still able to make important choices. He cautioned, though, that any region has only a few opportunities to get it right, and that there is no magic solution. He also offered several succinct ideas about regionalism: “setting a bigger table, including those who disagree,” “it’s never over,” and “no one is excused.”

Next Steps

Conference participants and local community and political leaders who held a follow-up meeting concluded that the region needs to explore seven action steps to build on the ideas generated by the conference speakers and discussion sessions.

1. Encourage communities to put in place a well-communicated and clearly explained capital improvement plan to help build community confidence that government can meet and pay for the needs of local communities and the region as a whole. The plan should match services to regional growth and build consensus among diverse interest groups about which areas are to be designated as urban and which will remain rural.

2. Promote infill development by using a redevelopment authority to build downtown housing, redevelop old strip centers and explore new projects in overlooked urbanized areas.

3. Develop design guidelines for infill and redevelopment projects that work as a friend, not a foe. The guidelines should be developed in partnership with the neighbors to build confidence in the process, remove fear of the unknown, and set a design framework rather than dictate a particular design style.

4. Use Bluegrass farmland as the niche or “brand identity” when marketing the Bluegrass as a location.

5. Educate the business community, especially the lending community, about the reasons for and benefits of smart growth.

6. Address concerns over economic winners and losers in the region, and undertake economic planning accordingly.

7. Build on collaborative regional efforts now in place and the common sense of place in the Bluegrass to strengthen regional planning efforts. This involves taking care to maximize alliances among groups and to balance strategic long-term planning with specific actions.

What will become of these ideas? If the past is any measure, over the next several months the leaders and citizens of the Bluegrass region will sort out which of these ideas will work best, and they will form the coalitions necessary to make them work. Bluegrass Tomorrow will continue to provide a unique model of private sector leadership on smart growth issues in collaboration with the region’s public officials and community residents.

Jean Scott is executive director of Bluegrass Tomorrow, based in Lexington, Kentucky, and Peter Pollock is director of community planning in Boulder, Colorado, and a former visiting fellow of the Lincoln Institute. Together they developed and organized the conference on Smart Growth for the Bluegrass.