Farmland Preservation Area policy amendment gets MCBOCC approval, heads to Tally

Sara Fennessy, the Horse Farms Forever director of community affairs, speaks during the Horse Farms Forever Conservation Summit at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club in Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. The mission of Horse Farms Forever is to raise awareness and provide education to ensure that the character and culture that horses and horse farms bring to Ocala/Marion County are protected for future generations. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

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Posted January 19, 2022 | By Matthew Cretul

In this file photo, Sara Fennessy, director of community affairs for Horse Farms Forever, speaks during the HFF Conservation Summit at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club in Ocala on Nov. 19, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

The Marion County Board of County Commissioners (MCBOCC) voted at their Jan. 18 regular meeting to approve additions to the text of Policy 3.3.1 of Marion County’s Land Development Code related to Elements of Rural Character in the Farmland Preservation Area (FPA).

The text amendments look to strengthen preservation language by limiting future zoning and building permits within the FPA.

Sara Fennessy the executive director of Horse Farms Forever (HFF), a group dedicated to maintaining the character and culture of the county’s horse farms, and the group that brought the amendments to the MCBOCC, said a planned ATV track spurred the changes.

“It was brought to our attention in 2020 when there was a proposed project in the Farmland Preservation Area,” she said. “It was pointed out to us by Growth Services that the Comprehensive Plan was really lacking those teeth and the language within it for them to be able to make a decision to approve or deny the track.”

The proposed text focuses on any future development of the land, and reads:

“The County shall preserve and protect rural and equestrian/agricultural character within the Rural Lands, specifically the Farmland Preservation Area, by requiring that all appropriate future development activities within this Area preserve, support, and enhance the fundamental elements of rural character that all Zoning Changes and Special Use Permits and within the Farmland Preservation Area be consistent with and preserve, protect, support, and enhance the rural, equestrian, and farmland character of the Farmland Preservation Area.”

The language goes on to describe “fundamental elements of rural character” in five distinct ways—scenic views, open space protection, rural lighting, transportation and infrastructure, each containing future building and zoning restrictions in their respective areas.

Busy Shires, the HFF director of conservation strategies, said the new wording is designed to strengthen language within the Land Development Code and ensure future permits or projects comply with the added elements.

“What it does is it ties back to the Comprehensive Plan to require that special use permits and zoning changes are also in compliance with the Farmland Preservation Area. So, it just tightens up the criteria,” she said.

While the MCBOCC approved the text amendments, according to Shires, the process still has a few more steps before the new wording can be formally added to the Land Development Code.

“So, it goes to Tallahassee to be reviewed by the Department of Economic Opportunity,” she said. “And then there’s also any review agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection or the Department of Transportation, whatever is necessary. After that review, then it comes back to the County Commission for the adoption hearing.”

Fennessy says HFF is blessed to have the support of not only the MCBOCC, but the county as a whole as they work to preserve what makes Marion County special.

“And we’re very fortunate that…our elected officials and the community as a whole really recognizes we have one-fourth of the county designated as the Farmland Preservation Area,” she said. “It has some of the rarest soils in the world and it needs to be protected. So as we’re continuing to grow, we’re very fortunate that we have so much public support from the community as a whole, and from developers as well, who recognize how important the area is.”

Should the amendment receive approval from Tallahassee, it will next appear on the March 15 MCBOCC regular meeting agenda for adoption.

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