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Here’s the Dirt on How We Can Protect our Special Soils and Environment

All Lexingtonians know that our region is home to legendary farmland. Fayette County and the Bluegrass Region is world-renowned for its horse farms, thriving agricultural crops, and bourbon production. None of these remarkable features would be possible without the nationally significant, prime soils that underly our area’s farms. Importantly, this soil is a major driver of the economic success of our area: Lexington’s agricultural industry contributes $2.3 billion to our local economy each year. Agriculture provides one out of every 12 jobs in our county, and rural employers contribute $8.5 billion annually to the local tax base. The dirt is what makes this all possible.

Fayette Alliance seeks to protect our fertile soils and our thriving agricultural sector. Our Urban Service Boundary (USB) ensures smart growth and prevents unsustainable sprawl into our surrounding farmland, ensuring our region’s trademark industries can continue to thrive long into the future. Lexington’s USB protects our productive farmland and unique soils from unnecessary development, while at the same time preventing urban sprawl and encouraging the county to grow thoughtfully and intentionally. 

What’s so Special About Our Soils?

The chemical profile of Lexington’s soils makes it prime for row crops, equine and livestock production, and pasture land. The Bluegrass Region is home to deep, residual soils formed on phosphatic limestone. This means that the soil contains high levels of calcium and phosphorus, which in turn means that the plants growing in this soil and animals raised on it are fortified with these minerals. Phosphorus is a natural fertilizer that nurtures strong and healthy plants; it is used as an amendment in other agricultural areas for this reason. The high calcium content enriches the grass, which benefits the animals who eat it. Hence the common notion that Kentucky Bluegrass grows horses with exceptionally strong bones! Fayette County’s rural land is uniquely rich in significant minerals that make our region the “Horse Capital of the World.” The soil also nurtures the corn, barley, and rye used in bourbon production, our region’s other distinctive industry, as well as other crops grown in Fayette County. The soil itself drives our unique and world-renowned agricultural economy, and the industries that lend our region its character are direct products of our special soils.

 In 2006, the Inner Bluegrass Region, which includes Fayette County, was placed on the World Monument Fund’s list of the 100 most endangered cultural landscapes in the world. Our agricultural land, which is recognized as ecologically and culturally significant, was disappearing as a result of sprawling development. According to a study by American Farmland Trust, from 2001-to 2016, 265,300 acres of Kentucky’s best farmland were developed – 77% of which was converted to low-density residential development. In Fayette County, according to the most recent 2017 USDA Agricultural Census, there remain 622 farms, down from 718 farms in 2012. This loss is significant. We must engage in mindful planning to minimize negative impacts on our farms, our farmers, and our region’s distinctive agricultural industries.  

How Can Our Soils Draw People to Fayette County?

Lexington is within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population. The unique and beautiful landscape that our soils nurture is a draw, both for tourists and for those looking to relocate. Our region boasts a unique feature: our urban and rural areas are adjacent to one another. This uncommon arrangement gives Lexington a unique character that many residents treasure. Our farmers grow crops and food in our rich limestone soils, and the bourbon industry draws many thousands of tourists per year. As of 2015, tourism accounted for over 15,000 jobs and had more than $2B in travel spending. While impacted by the pandemic, tourism is bouncing back, with equine tours still being the most requested tourism item according to VisitLex. 

The equine industry draws not only tourists to our region but also substantial economic investment and profit. According to the University of Kentucky’s 2012 Kentucky Equine Survey (which is currently being updated), there were 1,130 equine operations in Fayette County alone, 89,000 acres dedicated to equine operations, and the total value of Fayette County’s equine-related assets was $2.61 billion.  Without preserving the farmland and its soil, these critical drivers of our city’s economy would be negatively impacted. 

How Can We Preserve Our Agricultural Land?

As our region grows and changes, we need to take a long-term approach to protect our unique environment and agricultural industries. We need to prevent the sprawl that has long threatened the well-being of Lexington’s ecosystem. Some proponents of development beyond the USB advocate in favor of allowing home construction on what is now rural land. But reappropriating our agricultural land to address Fayette County’s housing shortage in the short term, historically has not been a solution to decrease housing prices or prevent displacement according to a 2017 University of Kentucky study commissioned by the Lexington Bluegrass Association of Realtors. Developing our land will result in an unrecoverable loss of the nationally significant, prime soils that drive our signature industries in the long term. Instead, Fayette County should pursue solutions to our housing problems in an intentional way that is mindful of both citizens’ housing needs and the preservation of our farmland. These solutions are possible through smart growth!

By focusing development efforts on infill and redevelopment rather than on expansion into our rural land, we can ensure that our agricultural industry will continue to thrive, both in terms of the health of our land and in terms of profitability. Infill and redevelopment directs development and investment inside of Lexington’s USB, thereby improving our existing neighborhoods while also preserving our unique soils. 

Protecting Our Environment

For our region’s unique soil conditions to remain healthy and to reduce our climate impact, we need to minimize greenhouse gas emissions in our area. Minimizing sprawl is directly linked to lowering levels of greenhouse gas. This makes sense: the further a person lives from the city center, the further and more often they are obligated to burn gas by driving, particularly in the absence of good public transportation. Unfettered expansion would lead to more roads, infrastructure, cars, and driving. All of these developments would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Conscientious development that focuses on investing in our existing neighborhoods and fully utilizing the land we have for development, minimizes greenhouse gas emissions. When people live near job centers and public transportation, they create a much smaller carbon footprint. 

Fayette Alliance advocates for mixed-use development within the USB, particularly, missing middle housing like townhomes, duplexes, fourplexes, and more along our major corridors. This form of development integrates housing with stores, restaurants, and services in existing neighborhoods, and we advocate for utilizing infill and redevelopment to build these types of homes and amenities on half-empty shopping malls and parking lots along major roads. People can therefore shop, eat, socialize, attend schools, and access health care close to home.  Studies show that when a city is walkable, its citizens experience a strong sense of community and the increased health benefits of regular exercise.  In an area of mixed-use development, people tend to walk or cycle to locations within or near their immediate neighborhood. Also, multi-family housing—townhouses, duplexes, and apartments—uses less energy than single-family detached homes. As a result, the mixed-use development recommended by Fayette Alliance ensures that the development that occurs within the USB benefits everyone. 

Protection of our precious soils is far from the only reason to support the ongoing maintenance of the USB. Take a look at 10 frequently asked questions about the Lexington urban service boundary to discover more ways that it preserves the character and economic sustainability of our unique region.