MCBOCC to consider three requests for WEC-OJC proposed development

The Marion County Commission meets in the County Commission auditorium at the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted February 28, 2022 | By Matthew Cretul

Three agenda items appear on the upcoming March 1 Marion County Board of County Commissioners (MCBOCC) regular meeting associated with the proposed World Equestrian Center – Ocala Jockey Club development, according to documents made available online in advance of the meeting.

The first listed item is a request from the developers of the World Equestrian Center (WEC) to add text amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan related to the county’s Future Land Use Element (FLUE) policy allowing for a change in the WEC land use designation, specifically to allow for hotels and RV parks which are currently prohibited in rural lands.

According to Chris Rison, a senior planner with Marion County, the WEC land use designation “identifies potential development options and maximum development amounts, depending upon whether or not a World Equestrian Center site [is] located in an urban or rural area.”

The land is currently designated as rural, and the second item is a request for the designation to be changed from rural to WEC, while the final agenda item is an application for the land’s zoning to be changed from A-1 (General Agriculture) and B-2 (Community Business) to PUD (Planned Unit Development), which will allow for the development of 94 Residential Units, agricultural functions, a hotel, an exhibition area, and competitive trail riding.

The three items are linked, according to Rison, meaning if the text amendment is not approved, the language would not be amended to allow for the zoning change and subsequent submittal of the PUD application because there would not be consistency within the comprehensive plan.

Marion County staff reviewed the applications and recommended they be denied.  Of the denial, Rison said, “We have some concerns related to allowing the introduction of urban-type uses into the rural areas and of interest into the farmland preservation area.”

In a Dec. 22 letter from Carla Sansone, the development review coordinator to David Tillman of Tillman & Associates Engineering, who works for the developers, Sansone wrote that during the process review “Some items were found which must be addressed.”

The letter noted concerns from the engineering and traffic operations that stated, “A traffic analysis is required by the Land Development Code for any Comprehensive Plan Amendment. It does not appear a traffic analysis was provided. This proposed change will have a significant traffic impact. A review of the traffic impacts can’t be conducted until a traffic analysis is provided. This application should be rejected until a traffic analysis is provided as required by the Land Development Regulations.”

Additionally, the zoning review indicated the “Area is within the Farmland Preservation Area, The WEC land use allows for commercial uses including retail, hotels, offices, [and] ‘business opportunities.’ The surrounding properties to the north, west, and south are Rural. Allowing this land use change would put urban uses in the rural outskirts of the county.”

Concerns were also raised in the areas of land use, and the letter detailed that “The WEC future land use designation is defined currently as being specific to the WEC Complex located west of NW 70th Ave/NW 70th Ave Rd/NW 80th Ave, and this site is not currently eligible for the land use designation unless that land use designations ‘definition’ is amended.”

Despite staff recommending the applications be denied, at their Feb. 7 meeting the Planning and Zoning Commission voted 3-2 to recommend approval of all three applications, with Commission Vice-Chair Michael Kroitor, Board Member Andy Bonner, and Board Member Jerry Lourenco voting to approve, while Alternate Board Member Thomas Fisher and Board Member Michael Behar voting to follow staff recommendations and deny the applications.

Online P&Z records from the meeting show Chairman Greg Lord, Board Member Digvijay Gaekwad, Board Member James Bailey, and Alternate Board Member William Heller were all absent from the meeting.

During P&Z public comments, multiple residents spoke, including former Jockey Club owner Eric Nygaard and Bonnie Health III.  Almost all of the residents spoke in favor of the equine-related development aspects, but opposed the hotel and RV park, citing traffic concerns as well as the potential for an overall increase in activity in the area.

Jimmy Gooding, the attorney for the WEC developer spoke to the P&Z board and pointed out areas of land near the proposed development allowed for a high level of development as well as a lime rock mine that touches the southern portion of the property to show how the WEC-OJC would be consistent and compatible with other land usages in the area.

“It’s not a dagger in the heart of the rural area,” Gooding said during the meeting.  He also told the P&Z board that the on-site hotel and RV park would keep some of the visitors contained on-site and reduce traffic in the area, as a smaller amount would be arriving and departing simultaneously.

Gooding said because of this, the traffic would not be like that of a “ Florida football game or a rock concert.”

Similar to the annotations made in the development review committee letter, Rison noted the absence of a formal study on the potential effects of traffic.

“They submitted some traffic information,” he said. “From a general standpoint, it’s a general summary, it is not a full traffic study. That involves a much more detailed system for review and analysis. They provided a general summary statement regarding the project.”

Having the P&Z commission recommend one action, in this case, approval, while staff recommends another, in this case, denial, is not uncommon, according to Stacie Causey, a spokesperson for the county.

The MCBOCC will consider the recommendations of both entities at the March 1 meeting, and if they approve the text amendment, it will be sent to Tallahassee, where the state will make its own recommendations before ultimately sending it back to the MCBOCC for final approval.

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