“No build” road debate continues

Carl Zalak III, the chair of the Marion County Commission, speaks during the Marion County Commission meeting in the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted December 22, 2021 | By James Blevins

Carl Zalak III, the chair of the Marion County Commission, speaks during the Marion County Commission meeting in the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala on Dec. 7, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

After almost three hours of spirited public comments and an equally spirited discussion amongst the board, the Marion County Board of County Commissioners (MCBOCC) approved a letter to be sent to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) concerning the proposed northern turnpike extension.

During deliberation on Tuesday, Dec. 21, the board amended some language to the original draft of the letter included in the regular meeting agenda; and, after two failed motions, the wording of the letter was finally approved in a 3-2 vote.

In the final vote, County Commissioners Craig Curry, Michelle Stone and Jeff Gold voted yes for a version of the amended letter, while Commissioners Kathy Bryant and Carl Zalak III both dissented.

Bryant’s concerns revolved around her desire to reference the recommendations of a task force from earlier this year. She wished to change the language so that it asked FDOT to “adhere closely to the guiding principles and instructions contained” in the task force recommendation.

Objecting to the word “adhere,” Stone explained to the board that to her Bryant’s suggested edit sounded a lot like a “no build” resolution.

Stone continued by saying that adhering to the task force’s recommendation, instead of examining and evaluating them, would be translated by the state as “do not cross the Greenway,” and she wouldn’t approve language of that kind.

“I think you’re making a mistake if you do not give them the authority that they need to conduct the survey,” said Stone of the FDOT. “That’s going to give us the opportunity to really be a partner and get some traffic relief.”

Zalak approved of Bryant’s change but voiced his reticence to a “no build” resolution.

“I don’t like these routes,” admitted Zalak. “Does that mean that I would come up here and put a resolution together for no build? I don’t think of that as having a thoughtful process. But I do think FDOT can do a much better job if they wanted to put a road through our community.”

Stone offered her proposed edits to the board as minor tweaks to the opening and closing paragraphs of the letter. She explained that her edits were meant to help continue the board’s partnership with FDOT as the northern turnpike project progresses through the different phases of development.

“It’s not that we want to pave over Marion County,” said Stone after the meeting. “I don’t want to lose anything. I want to gain everything that we can. So let them do the study. Let’s partner with them and figure out what can be done.”

Curry, who had voted to approve Bryant’s suggested amendment to the letter in a previous motion, changed his vote, the deciding one, once Stone pointed out her “no build” concerns within the language of Bryant’s suggested edit asking FDOT to “adhere” to the task force’s recommendations.

Ultimately, the 3-2 vote approved Stone’s amended version of the letter, which can be seen here, while voting no on Bryant’s suggested change to the second item. The letter will be emailed to FDOT Project Manager William Burke.

“There is no amount of money worth what we lose if this project is built through the heart of Marion County,” said Bryant. “For those who live in this area, it will forever change their way of life.

“So, as I’ve said many times,” she continued, “the biggest issue we face is accommodating the growth that we know is coming our way.”

Public Outcry

Over 20 people spoke during public comments on Tuesday, with the vast majority in opposition to the toll roads, asking the board to agree to a “no build” resolution.

Public resistance to the northern turnpike extension cited increased traffic, air and water pollution, environmental damage and the loss of the rural character of Marion County as some of their chief concerns, among many others.

While expressing his disapproval of the proposal, one speaker began crying at the tale end of addressing the board.

“It is just so heartbreaking,” he said through tears. “I just wish they would consider not building.”

Alicia Hart, who lives in Dunnellon, presented to the board a document with 258 signatures from Florida Highlands residents who opposed the planned turnpike extension.

While she said she appreciated the draft letter, Hart wished to change the letter asking FDOT to “examine and evaluate” to “follow.”

“We want them to follow the task force recommendations. Millions of taxpayers’ dollars funded this task force and we would like their recommendations to be used,” Hart said.

David Houtz, who lives at 8741 S.W. 140th Avenue in Dunnellon, pleaded to the county board to stand its ground.

“We as residents should not have to take one for the team because this board is afraid of losing state support in the future,” Houtz said. “I may be a new resident of Marion County but I’m a proud resident of Marion County—proud of how we packed this chamber today and how the board has given us the opportunity to express our concerns.

“Please listen to your residents with an open mind and take into consideration the irreversible damage this road will cause,” he concluded.

Mayor of Dunnellon Bill White also spoke against the extension, citing a recent Dunnellon city council meeting where the council voted unanimously for a no build resolution.

“Marion County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country,” White said. “Putting this turnpike through these rural areas with these little county roads will be like pouring steroids on growth. If you think you are challenged now with smart growth, the biggest challenge to smart growth is a tidal wave of development.”

Craig Curry, the vice chair of the Marion County Commission, listens during the Marion County Commission meeting in the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala on Dec. 7, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Jimmy Gooding, of Gilligan, Gooding, Batsel, Anderson & Phelan, P.A., who frequently represents the interests of developers before the MCBOCC took a different position than the others giving public comments. He explained that the board truly had three options: do nothing, say no toll roads in Marion County or say no toll roads in Marion County without the MCBOCC’s participation in the location process.

“These maps that we’ve seen are horrible,” said Gooding. “I’m not surprised that the reaction is what it is. But that’s just an example of how bad maps can be, and what happens if we don’t have a seat at the table.”

Gooding added that sticking with option one sounds great—no toll roads in Marion County—but will it work? He asked.

“That’s the problem. FDOT is not building this road because it wants to. It’s building this road because the legislature said you’re going to build it. And I don’t think the effective thing to do is to say ‘Not through Marion County.’ And that’s it. I think with proper study some of these routes could be tweaked and still provide needed transportation relief.”

Echoing his partner’s sentiments, attorney Rob Batsel, Jr. told the MCBOCC that he also wished the county would maintain a seat at FDOT’s table. He called the no build resolution an “unreasonable position.”

“That’s the quickest way to minimize our voice and perhaps lose our seat at the table,” he said, adding “that we’re not going to be successful by stomping our feet, crying and saying no.”

Jan Cubbage, a councilwoman for the City of Dunnellon asked the board to look at the county seal above their heads.

“It represents water, our landscape and of course our equine industry,” she said. “But I still say that one of our biggest assets of our county is our people. We have so many wonderful people who begin their lives here and maintain their residences here.”

Cubbage informed the board of her concerns for low-income families who will be directly affected by the building of the northern turnpike extension, many of which, she claimed, won’t have any other place to go.

“We must consider all of these persons,” Cubbage concluded, “because so many neighborhoods will be impacted if these roads go through.”

Jeff Slauson of Dunnellon addressed Batsel’s comments from earlier in the meeting.

“We had a couple of lawyers stand up here today and tell us not to stomp our feet and say no, but we’re the ones that stand to lose our land. We’re the ones who stand to lose our quality of life,” he said. “We’re the ones to lose the very reasons we chose to live here.”

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