Land-use laws—enshrined in the zoning ordinances and maps that most localities use to regulate building form and use across space—are intended to guide development. But local governments often allow landowners to request rezonings that allow them to switch the baseline zoning for their property to another category and thus build something entirely different than what would ordinarily be allowed.
Widespread use of developer-initiated rezonings could have several implications. On the one hand, they enable localities to adjust policies to reflect real-estate market conditions, creating room for more development when needed. But piecemeal approvals could also lead to a locality drifting away from its approved comprehensive plan and jurisdiction-wide zoning laws. Such outcomes have equity implications depending on who can afford to request a rezoning and whether local authorities approve rezonings at varying rates in different neighborhoods.
In this report, we assess developer-initiated rezonings in Louisville, Kentucky. Our research capitalizes on a new dataset of all rezoning applications from 2010 to 2020 in the combined Louisville–Jefferson County jurisdiction (Metro), which includes the merged city-county government and several other incorporated municipalities. These localities collectively manage land-use decisions. We conducted this work alongside the Metro’s ongoing racial equity review of its zoning code and processes.
Our examination reveals that localities in the Louisville Metro follow democratic norms and expert guidance in their zoning processes, but the system as a whole—including the housing market and the rezoning approval process—advantages wealthy neighborhoods in the process of managing development.
Developer interest in investment— indicated by the number of building permits and rezoning applications—centers on wealthier, more expensive neighborhoods in Louisville. Local governments in the Metro approve most developer-initiated rezonings. However, we find that the level and tenor of public participation in Metro Planning Commission hearings heavily influence approval decisions, and resident participation is not equal across the Metro. Among the rezoning cases we examined, the total number of speakers and the share of those speakers who oppose projects are significantly higher in wealthier neighborhoods where residents are more highly educated, more frequently non-Hispanic white, and more likely to be homeowners (figure 1). Ultimately, although developers submit more rezoning applications for projects located in wealthier neighborhoods, local legislative bodies approve fewer applications in these areas than in lower-income neighborhoods.
Approval Rates for Louisville Rezonings Were Associated with Public Speaker Presence and Tenor
WHY THIS MATTERS
Local legislative bodies approve developer-initiated rezonings in Louisville at varying rates associated with the demographics of the neighborhoods where developers propose projects. Such variation could suggest that decisionmakers disproportionately weigh the opinions of white residents and people with higher incomes. It may also mean that current processes do not adequately consider the views of residents in neighborhoods where participation is less common.
Our results indicate that jurisdictions should consider adjusting the weight that public participation plays in rezoning approvals. They should also examine whether current participation processes lead to different levels of adherence to the comprehensive plan and the associated zoning ordinance.