Hearing for controversial RaceTrac project set for March 19

Neighbors, Horse Farms Forever and Save Our Rural Area among those opposing multi-pump fueling station eyed for Farmland Preservation Area.

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Posted March 12, 2024 | By Belea T. Keeney

Sign posting, SB US Hwy 441. [Supplied]

A long-awaited hearing on a RaceTrac convenience store and big-rig truck fueling station proposed for a site in the Farmland Preservation Area near Sparr has been set for 2 p.m. during the Marion County Board of County Commissioners’ March 19 meeting. The hearing has been on hold since December, a delay that has rankled both opponents of the project and Commissioner Carl Zalak, who called the developer’s move to postpone the proceedings “bogus.”

The applicants seek to rezone 11.06 acres of an overall ±38.62-acre parcel on the southwest corner of U.S. 441 and County Road 329. According to the county Planning & Zoning staff report, the request is “for the development of a RaceTrac gas station, convenience store, and truck stop; however, zoning changes are not conditional so all permitted uses must be considered. The site is located within the Farmland Preservation Area (FPA), the Silver Springs Primary Springs Protection Zone (SPSPZ), the Silver Springs Secondary Protection Zone (SSSPZ), and outside of the Marion County Utilities’ Utility Service Area.”

The RaceTrac site plan shows 16 car gas pumps, five truck refueling pumps and a 6,008-square-foot convenience store, but no designated parking for big-rig trucks. Planning & Zoning staff recommended denial; the plan was turned down by the Planning & Zoning Commission in a 5-1 vote at the November 2023 meeting. In a 3-0 vote, the Development Review Committee recommended denial of the rezoning in its February 2023 review of this project. 

The request is to change the zoning from General Agriculture (A-1) to Rural Commercial (RC-1), which is an unusual zoning designation in Marion County. Only 20 parcels have that zoning, many of which have been grandfathered in from decades-long zoning designations implemented before the county’s Comprehensive Plan was put into effect in 1992. Of those 20 parcels, 14 are vacant land, three are residential, one has an office associated with Southeast Milk Inc., one is a pallet refurbishment business and one is a church. 

Opposition showed in force

The November hearing before the Planning & Zoning Commission drew over 90 audience members, many of whom wore red shirts in protest of the RaceTrac proposal, and more than two dozen people signed up to speak to the board. The project also received 61 pages of emails in opposition. 

Looking west on CR 329, from Sonoco gas station across the street. [Supplied]

The opponents’ concerns focused on the dangerous situation that already exists at the site, where southbound highways U.S. 301 and U.S. 441 merge at the CR 329 intersection. Adding more semitrailers and heavy gas station and convenience store traffic would make the area more dangerous, they said. Speakers also expressed concern about the mix of horses from nearby farms being that close to big trucks; that North Marion High School and North Marion Middle School are within a mile east and west of the site; and the lack of demand for more gas stations. Two small existing gas stations/convenience stores are on the east side of U.S. 441; both have been at the intersection for decades and have only one dual-sided gas pump. 

SORA and HFF opposed

In a new tactic to drum up attention and opposition, Horse Farms Forever (HFF) sent a mailer to a large swath of property owners in the northern part of the county about the project. Labeled “Buck the Truck Stop,” the HFF’s mailer focused on the inappropriateness of a truck stop and the need for trucks parking onsite, which would not be allowed without a Special Use permit.

“RaceTrac has applied to build a truck stop deep inside the Farmland Preservation Area,” a HFF blog post about RaceTrac read. “The County says truck stops are not compatible on agricultural land, so RaceTrac has applied to change the zoning and made some modifications to the plan, calling it a gas station and convenience store with Extended Diesel Offering (EDO). EDO is RaceTrac’s code word for truck stop. It’s a shenanigan! But more critically, it is an inappropriate use of rural land and is located in a traffic hot zone that is already dangerous.”

Tim Gant, president of Save Our Rural Area (SORA), said his group if vehemently against the RaceTrac project.

“Even though the county’s comp plan clearly states that rezoning to commercial in rural protected areas can only occur if it is compatible with the surrounding areas and serves a rural need, we still have instances such as the upcoming RaceTrac application, which is in the FPA and is basically serving to refuel travelers that have no connection to the area,’’ Gant said. “… these instances will continue to plague the county with unwarranted and unwanted development.”

The SORA team is somewhat encouraged, though, by the enormous volume and organized opposition that this and other projects have received in the past few months.

“With each passing day, there seems to be more awareness of the consequences of unlimited growth on not only the infrastructure needs these projects bring, but on quality of life issues which is a big reason many people move here,” Gant said. “By taking a moment now to reflect on how we can manage this growth in a positive manner moving forward, we can create a future in which our citizens can thrive and be proud of.”

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