When the Bluegrass disappears to development, something precious is lost forever
Updated: Jun 18, 2021
A slow-moving crisis is unfolding across Central Kentucky: the unique, beautiful, and open landscape is disappearing forever under the plow of bulldozers and development. I’m a son of the Bluegrass living in the Washington, DC, area. I’m writing to warn about the ruining of an irreplaceable natural resource.
As a former diplomat, I have traveled extensively. Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. None compare. I can say with certainty that the Bluegrass region of Central Kentucky is unlike anywhere else in the world. The hills gently rolling towards the horizon, pastureland lush with green grass and grazing horses, graceful trees framing picturesque fence lines, the blue skies and spectacular sunsets. As the tourism tagline once said, the Commonwealth’s beauty is uncommon.
Sadly, what makes Central Kentucky distinctive is slowly disappearing. Over the past 25 years, I’ve seen on my visits home how development has irrevocably altered the landscape. Lexington’s growth pushes suburbs further into farmland, mirrored in other Bluegrass cities like Richmond (my hometown), Versailles, Georgetown, Nicholasville, and others. While new shopping centers are nice and track subdivisions add affordable housing, it comes at a price. It slowly transforms what made the region desirable into something sterile and generic.
The land is Central Kentucky’s greatest natural resource. It makes the region unique. But when I recently drove I-75 north from Richmond around Lexington and past Georgetown, unchecked development is taking this away. I’ve seen farms, horses, and rows of tobacco replaced with Walmarts, Costcos, and gas stations. While adding convenience today, we’ve all seen them later abandoned, creating concrete dead zones while developers plow under the next field.
Take a lesson from northern Virginia where I live in the Washington, DC, suburbs. It’s a future Kentucky should avoid. There is no open space. No vistas. A countryside once similar to Central Kentucky is now mile after mile of sprawling development. Unlike Kentucky, this area can afford to lose its natural beauty. The federal government will always provide jobs and employment. But Central Kentucky’s scenery is its unique selling point. What will become of the Bluegrass state without any space for Bluegrass?
To stop these dynamics before it’s too late, local and state leaders must step up. They should manage open spaces as a resource to steward and protect, not an infinite supply always available for development. Once a field is gone, it’s gone forever.
The scarcity of land in the DC-metro area has forced a rethink Kentucky could learn from. Changing the tax code and development regulations can incentivize in-building. Older homes on large lots are knocked down, re-parceled, and replaced with multiple new units, which revitalizes neighborhoods. Empty office parks and malls can be transformed into bustling condominiums or schools. Denser zoning can encourage high-rises and thus provide more housing (and an elevated view of the landscape and sunsets) while preserving land. Stricter approval processes can redirect developers to restore old shopping centers. Slowing the encroachment of suburbs into farmland can increase property values, making all homeowners richer and creating generational wealth for the middle class.
The days of endless pastures no longer exist. The Bluegrass region can go extinct as a natural wonder. It’s happened elsewhere. It’s happening now in Central Kentucky. I hope Kentuckians will heed this friendly advice and take steps to protect the disappearing Bluegrass. I’m watching a unique aspect of my beloved home slowly fade away, I fear forever.
Knox Thames grew up in Richmond and attended Georgetown College. For the past 25 years, he and his family have lived in the Washington, DC, area. A former diplomat, he is writing a book about strategies to promote international religious freedom and defeat religious persecution.