The State of Oldham County

Builders, County Officials, Weigh in on Future of Development

To see the completed article as published, click here.


Great neighborhoods, award-winning schools, a robust history, a beautiful park system, small-town charm, all in a convenient location — homebuyers want it, and Oldham County has it.

Cross over from the congestion of Jefferson County, from areas like Anchorage, northeast Louisville and Prospect, and visitors are welcomed by the slower paced, smaller community of Oldham County. Since the mid-1970s, the county has seen a steady influx of new residents, but as the population increases, county officials and the building industry are working together to sustain growth while addressing potential hurdles like roadway expansion, maintaining the quality of the county’s schools, access to sewer systems and the increasing costs for development and labor itself.

Increasing Development Costs
The unfortunate fact many builders are facing is that costs are increasing across the board. “Land development cost has skyrocketed in the last two years, so larger lots are extremely expensive to put on the ground, ergo prices will be rising,” said Walt Schumm, who has been in the industry for nearly 30 years. Schumm’s company has done several developments in Oldham County, predominately large-profile lots. He said in the last two to three years, construction costs alone have increased anywhere from 3 to 7 percent a year, rising 20 to 25 percent in the last three years. “So, the challenge is how do you create affordable housing for people when you’re building on large, expensive lots and construction costs continue to rise at 3 to 5 percent a year,” he asked. “Affordability becomes a critical question, so I think that’s going to push us into multi-family-type projects and continuing to search for land that is available for higher-density development.”

Schumm believes Oldham County development is headed toward the more expensive side of the spectrum because as the cost of land increases, so do the costs of development. Combine those factors with today’s cost for labor, and builders have more costly projects on their hands.

“Some of [builders’] biggest issues are just controlling their cost, and our ground out here is expensive, and development costs are very expensive,” said Mark Theiss, Oldham County chief building official. “We end up carrying a pretty high price tag. Affordability is difficult in our market.”

Controlling cost is certainly one of the biggest challenges the building industry faces within and beyond Oldham County. With so many projects in Louisville and surrounding counties, the additional factor is that labor is scarce.

“Every builder is facing a critical shortage of labor. Getting a project is one thing, completing it is another thing because labor is just in high demand right now and it stretches the timeline of a project,” Schumm said.

Working with the School System
Oldham County schools consistently rank highly in the state, with North Oldham High School and South Oldham High School both ranked in the top five best high schools in Kentucky in recent years, making it even more attractive to families. “I think folks are looking for a wonderful school system and a great place to live,” Schumm said. “Oldham County is definitely an alternative to the congestion in Jefferson County, and I would encourage folks to take a look out this way.”

One effort county officials and building industry leaders are collaborating on is finding a solution to keeping pace with the demand for residential development, while maintaining the quality of Oldham County schools without overcrowding. Jim Urban is the director of planning and development services and has served in his position for two separate administrations. Essentially, Oldham County reviews the number of students per household that will come from a new development. The county’s school board does a 10-year student population projection based on their formula, Urban explained. “It’s 98.9 percent accurate,” he said. “They tell us what that subdivision — what that impact is going to be on the schools, and then we determine how many building permits per year that particular development can receive.”

Billy Doelker has lived in Oldham County since 2001, and his company, Key Homes LLC, has operated in the county since then as well. As someone who both lives and works in Oldham County, Doelker has had the opportunity to be engaged with the planning and development community and has been pleased in the transparency between those involved. “The staff at planning and zoning do a fabulous job of working with the development/building community to have all the players at the table when it comes to ordinance changes, so several of us have participated in a process — what they’ve been calling their Study Review Committee — on what they present to planning and zoning for these ordinance changes, and one of those has to do with the school capacity formulas,” Doelker said. “We’ve been involved in what that’s going to look like going forward. Of course, we wish there was no limit, but I believe what has been come up with is reasonable.”

The biggest component is understanding the need for expanding on and improving infrastructure changes as the population grows. From Oldham County’s first population boom in the ‘70s to new policies introduced under former County Judge Executive John Black in the late-1990s, capacity planning is still in place. “Once that started happening through the ‘70s and through the ‘80s and the ‘90s, we saw a lot of residential growth, and as a result we were not really keeping up with our infrastructure,” Urban said. The county is analyzing future population growth projections as a whole, with population expected to tally as many as 70,000 to 74,000 people by the 2020 census, and 150,000 by the year 2050. “In terms of looking at our future, we’re always balancing a development plan based on its impact on our infrastructure.”

Improving Infrastructure
Roadway expansion is an enormous task for Oldham County officials to tackle alone, and many in and outside of the county have lobbied for federal and state funding to expand on its infrastructure needs. “There’s been enough development across the county where it’s hard to put extended new roads in, so we’re trying to widen what we have when we can, but Kentucky isn’t particularly flush on money,” explained Oldham County Judge Executive David Voegele. “There’s several billion dollars of requests for road services and expansions and whatnot, and about $800 million a year to do it with, so we’ve been fortunate in the fact that [Interstate 71] is being widened from Louisville out to the county line to the northeast of us.”

While state funding, or lack thereof, always has the potential to create both figurative and literal roadblocks in any given project, changes are happening for the better. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity in Oldham County with various things that are happening, … from the recent road projects that have been announced from the I-71 widening to interstate change at Exit 20, even some of the other county and state roads, like Highway 393,” said Doelker.

“We’re looking at two more streets in our office park, and we just completed one 2-mile street that has four lanes on it that runs through the southern section of the office park,” Voegele said.

Another infrastructure component is working with how the water and sewer systems are laid out. Right now, in Oldham County, if a lot doesn’t have access to a sewer line, the lot must be at least 1 acre for homes which require a septic system. The county has its own sewer district, but communication is underway with Jefferson County’s Metropolitan Sewer District.

“Our county government, we’re talking very seriously with the Metropolitan Sewer District … about merging into MSD and whether or not that would have an impact on future growth,” Voegele said. “I’m sure it’ll have some, because around here development pays for development, versus the utility extending the lines and paying for it and seeing what happens later.”

The county’s efforts are certainly not going unnoticed. “The sewer and road infrastructure availability are what I would consider some of the biggest issues,” Doelker said. “From the building department, planning and zoning, and engineering department, I feel like today there’s a staff of people there that are trying to do and be partners with the private side to help find the best use of land and/or projects for Oldham County.”

Building Predictions, New Developments and Upcoming Projects
Even with access to sewers on builders’ and officials’ minds, many believe the 1-acre lot sizes are going to be a thing of the past. “The trend is definitely the buyers would prefer a smaller lot development with access to open space, indoor parks, common areas, that kind of thing, with more minimal maintenance,” Doelker said, “I’m not saying that you don’t do any 1-acre or large lots, there’s still a buyer for that, but I think the trends would definitely prove that you can still design and build a small lot development by integrating the open space and proximity to parks and that kind of thing, and it’s very appealing to a large percentage of the buyers in all different demographics, from age level to economic levels.”

The needs and wants of the buyer are something to consider when advocating for more infrastructure, especially in terms of expanding on the county’s sewer line. “Whether you’re a baby boomer that’s downsizing or whether you’re a brand-new homebuyer, those two markets don’t necessarily want to do all that maintenance on a 1-acre lot. There’s less inclination to cut the grass at night,” Urban said. “The younger generation is looking for amenities like parks and trails and cool places to hang out, and the older generation is saying, ‘OK, I’m giving away my lawn mower, I don’t ever want to cut the grass again.’”

Oldham County is becoming somewhat of a commuter county, with the majority of residents driving back and forth from Jefferson County for work, and those are projects county officials have their sights set on and that builders recognize as a necessity in the area. “We would like more employment opportunities throughout the county. I’d say certainly half the people in this county or better have a college degree of some kind.” Voegele said. “Many of those people are educated and could easily work closer to home if the employment opportunities are there.”

Doelker estimated 80 percent of Oldham County residents drive to and from Louisville for work and said the county needs more business opportunities with local jobs. “We can’t just keep growing as a residential county,” he said.

That being said, builders continue to express excitement over new Oldham County neighborhoods.

“We have four developments currently in this county: Ballard Glen, Ballard Woods,
Grand Oaks and Poplar Ridge Place, which will start in the fall,” Schumm said. “Lot prices generally range from the low-40s to what will be over $150,000.”

Ballard Glen boasts craftsman homes with shared greenspace, including an equestrian barn and riding and walking trails, and it’s located in Smithfield, just outside of La Grange. Ballard Woods, also located in Smithfield, is a 105-lot subdivision with proximity and convenience to the city, while maintaining distance and privacy. Grand Oaks, in Crestwood, is a lakefront community offering lot sizes from 1 to 2 acres.

“Poplar Ridge Place is a newly approved subdivision that we’re just beginning construction on in the Crestwood area, and that’ll be estate-type lots,” Schumm said. “We expect to open up the fifth phase of Ballard Woods, which is a new project for 2020.”

In addition to those developments, Schumm worked on Summit Parks, located minutes from downtown La Grange. “We undertook Summit Parks, which is a project that had gone dormant for about 12 years for a variety of reasons, … and we’ve been very successful in redeveloping that,” Schumm explained. “That’s a large-profile, sewered lot subdivision where the lots are typically a half-acre or more, and that seems to be very popular now in Oldham County.”

Doelker and Key Homes are developing the Commons at Cedar Point, a 102-lot subdivision with 50-foot-wide lots. “The location’s in the Buckner area, and I think it’ll be a good project, and we are already seeing early interest even before groundbreaking,” Doelker said. “We’re also currently building Claymont Springs, Artisan Park [and] Independence Park. … Fox Run is another one that we did as a joint development.”

Both builders and officials have several key factors to consider as the population grows, and the transparency between the industries is vital in ensuring mutual success. “We’re looking at the past, making sure we don’t make the same mistakes,” Urban said. “We’re taking into account current trends and we’re trying to project that out to the future.”

Great neighborhoods, award-winning schools, historical sites, greenspaces, and small-town charm. Oldham County has it, and officials and building industry leaders are working together to spread its appeal. “I think we have an attractive county here,” Voegele said. “Many people would move to this area, find this county to be one that they’d like to live in, partly because of the larger lots with the space available if you happen to have horses, or enjoy outdoor recreation, or want some more elbow room.”

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