County Commission conditionally approves Sunny Oaks PUD

The proposed development will be of a mix of industrial and commercial uses

Dollie Modican-Strong, 81, top left, and her great grandsons, Trenton Yarn, 17 months, center, Timothy Yarn Jr., 3, bottom left, and Jase Johnson, 2, and her sister, Almetta Modican-Mitchell, 83, top right, pose on their property in Reddick on March 8. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted March 10, 2022 | By Matthew Cretul

The Marion County Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve a rezoning request related to an application from B. Smith Hialeah, LLC for their Sunny Oaks Planned Unit Development (PUD) during the planning & zoning portion of their March 1 regular meeting.

The land was previously zoned A-1 and sits outside the Urban Growth Boundry and within the Farmland Preservation Area, however, text amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan in 2014 allowed for the rezoning that permitted industrial and commercial purposes.

Earlier in the meeting, the BOCC voted to transmit a Comprehensive Plan text amendment to Tallahassee for state review and comments related to the proposed WEC/OJC development, which, if approved once it comes in front of the board later this year, would allow for a future PUD application to be submitted. 

During the meeting, Commissioner Kathy Bryant asked Marion County Attorney Guy Minter to explain to those in attendance how the Sunny Oaks PUD application was different than the WEC/OJC text amendment transmittal and how the request falls in line with the county’s current Comprehensive Plan.

“They’re [B. Smith Hialeah, LLC] applying to modify their land use and zoning in this application, and they are entitled to have something that’s consistent with all the land uses that they [currently] have,” Minter said. “They have certain property rights…so the county can’t take away their property rights to develop, consistent with their land use. We may not have to give them all the intensity they’re looking for, but we have to give them something.”

The board heard from David Tillman, president of Tillman & Associates Engineering, the firm working with B. Smith Hialeah, and who represented the developer at the March 1 meeting. Tillman discussed how multiple issues raised by the board related to traffic, buffers and utilities would be addressed by the developer. He also mentioned the possibility the development could create approximately 2,700 new jobs in Marion County. 

The board also heard from dozens of residents who expressed their displeasure and unhappiness regarding the development during the three-hour portion of the meeting. Many pointed to the intensified traffic on West Highway 318, a two-lane road, as well as the increase in urban sprawl and the potentially negative environmental effects of the proposed plan. 

“I don’t feel like the commission heard the needs of the people and are protecting our interests,” said Eddie Strong Jr. after the meeting. “I feel like it’s been shoved down our throats, to be honest. The people spoke, we don’t want any change. How are you preserving farmland when you’re building industrial buildings, multiple over five stories? When you go to a farm, you expect to see a barn, tractors, animals, and horses, not a wastewater plant. That’s not a farm.”

Both Strong Jr. and his mother Dollie were among those who spoke in opposition to the development at the meeting. The land their family has owned for over a century falls in the middle of the proposed plan. Dollie said she understands the property owners have rights, but she feels like the board could have protected them more than they did. 

“I’m just disappointed, I’m hurt. I feel bad and I didn’t sleep at all [the night after the meeting],” said Dollie, whose parents passed the property down to her and her four siblings, one of which was born there. 

Strong said she was taught from a young age what the land meant to her family.

“Our parents instilled in us, no matter what, pay your taxes, don’t lose the property. And so far, we still have the property.”

While the Strongs and the other families whose land falls inside the proposed development aren’t at risk of losing their property in the short term, Strong said she believes property taxes will ultimately go up, and they are at risk of losing the rural way of life they have come to know. Once it’s gone, she said, it’s gone for good.  

“We go way back. My daddy farmed, my brother farmed. My husband farmed. We raised animals; we always had something, horses, cows, all kinds of different animals. We always had agriculture, and for them to take that away, I was so hurt,” Dollie said. 

Reddick resident Henri Davis also spoke at the meeting. Like the Strongs, the property she lives on would be entirely surrounded by the development. Additionally, according to the conceptual plans, Davis would have a wastewater treatment plant built directly to the south of their property. 

“I’ve been there over 62-and-a-half years,” Davis said. “I really hope y’all take us into consideration, because I’m right there in the middle, and it’s been in my family a long time. With all of those industrial buildings they’re thinking of putting around us, how is that really going to affect us?,” she asked. 

Both Davis and Strong Jr. cited the concerns they have about air quality, with Strong Jr. saying he regularly exercises outdoors on his family’s property, but may be forced to find somewhere else should the air quality deteriorate once the buildings are constructed.

While the board approved the application for the Irvine/Sunny Oaks Regional Activity Center, they did so on the condition that certain buffer requirements were met, as well as traffic concurrency issues be addressed. Additionally, they limited building to 1.5 million square feet until traffic and utility infrastructure are put in place.

The conceptual plan also calls for an easement to be constructed allowing Davis access to west HWY 318, and Commission Chair Carl Zalak raised the possibility of the developers providing Davis a privacy gate into her property.

In addition to commercial and industrial buildings, the conceptual plan for Sunny Oaks also includes a fire station on the site, however, Marion County Fire Chief James Banta indicated to the board during the meeting that the proposed site might be further west than necessary in order to best serve the county’s needs, even if it falls on the eastern-most portion of the development.

The county and Marion County Fire Rescue (MCFR) have been exploring using the penny sales tax to assist with relocating MCFR Fire Station 9 from its current location on US 441 just south of McIntosh to a more central location closer to I-75, which Highway 318 would provide. 

Banta said moving down to the 318 area would be more beneficial to the county and residents of the area as a whole, as opposed to its current location when looking at call volume and the amount of call volumes that will continue occurring. Banta indicated MCFR is exploring multiple options including a new station located outside of the Sunny Oaks PUD.

Commissioners Gold, Stone, Curry, and Zalak voted for approving the application. Bryant voted against it. 

Since the vote on March 1, the county has already begun the process of studying and analyzing traffic concurrency and utility infrastructure considerations, including water and sewer in the area.

“The commission approved [County Administrator] Mounir [Bouyounes] to use the consultant under contract for this fiscal year. We have already provided the consultant the scope of work, and the consultant started work on this project Monday, March 7,” said Stacie Causey, a spokesperson for the county. 

Tillman did not return multiple requests for comment related to the developer’s timeline for meeting the conditions set forth by the board.

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