Potential Jumbolair development meets opposition from area residents
P&Z recommends denial in a surprise move, but nearby residents remain worried about air traffic, car traffic, noise and disruption to their rural way of life.
Update: Over 70 people attended the Marion County Board of County Commissioners on Dec. 5 to protest the Jumbolair project.
The developer’s representatives said a new plan using only low-density residential zoning (1 dwelling unit per acre) is in progress. Attorney Batsel said they listened to the concerns from the neighborhood meeting in November and have come up with a revised plan that eliminates the multi-family homes.
Four public commenters focused on security aspects of the private airport; the protection of country life; the use of eminent domain to install county water and sewer; and the revision of the county’s Comprehensive Plan to expand the airport overlay districts to protect those in a 5-mile radius of airports.
The board agreed to postpone the hearing to February 20, 2024.
Facing strong headwinds of opposition from nearby homeowners, Marion County officials have for now grounded plans for a nearly 500-unit residential and commercial expansion of the storied Jumbolair Aviation Estates development north of Ocala.
Robert Bull and various business entities have purchased multiple parcels in the area near Northeast 77th Street in the sprawling community and are requesting various land use and zoning changes. The Marion County Growth Services staff initially recommended approval of the Planned Unit Development but then reversed course just before a heated Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on Oct. 30.
“Since that report was written, there’s been more research, and we recommend denial,’’ Deputy Director of Growth Services Ken Weyrauch told the P&Z board. “We have to do a lot more research. And we’re willing to work with the applicant to reach common ground. We’ll get there and talk with the agencies.”
Staff findings that the proposal is not consistent with Florida Statutes and the Marion County Comprehensive Plan and is incompatible with the surrounding area came as welcome news to the concerned residents who packed the Southeast Livestock Pavilion Auditorium.
Since then, a neighborhood meeting with the Jumbolair development team was held Nov. 28 in one of Bull’s four airplane hangars on Jumbolair’s north side, but the session did not reach common ground for the participants, and many angry residents walked away vowing to continue to fight the proposal.
The demeanor of the audience at that meeting was wholly against the entire concept, reported one attendee.
“If there were pitchforks and torches available, they would have been wielded,” said neighborhood organizer Jonathan Rivera-Rose Schenck. “From the start to the end, there was no love lost between the two sides.”
The application was set to go before the Board of County Commissioners on Dec. 5, but on Nov. 30, attendees from the neighborhood meeting began receiving emails from Bull’s legal team stating that they were requesting the application be tabled and taken up sometime in January instead.
Subhead: The project outline
Bull is requesting several land use and zoning changes. They are: change from rural land to low residential on 289.08 acres; low residential to medium residential on 39.26 acres; and rural land to commercial on 30.28 acres. The proposal includes single family and townhomes totaling 446 units, between NE 77th St as the south border and NE 95th Street on the north, and west to West Anthony Road, with one parcel jutting east of the runway. All of the parcels surround the Jumbolair runway, noted as the largest private airstrip in the United States.
The commercial portion would border Northeast 77th and 80th streets near current hangars and maintenance buildings and is listed as intended for “commercial construction/contracting and metal buildings.”
The Jumbolair property off Old Highway 301 has had an unusual history. It began as a racehorse farm and then was used as an exotic animal rescue, including elephants, in the 1980s when the name Jumbolair began to be used. In the 1990s, the property was developed under a different owner and became an aviation residential community with hangar space and access to its runway as key selling points. Its most prominent owner is reported to be actor John Travolta, who routinely flies in and out of the community aboard his private 727 jet.
Bull owns dozens of antique and wartime planes and “constantly keeps up his fleet and flies each one at least monthly” attorney Rob Batsel, representing Bull, said at the P&Z meeting.
For many neighbors, those flights are ruining the peaceful nature of the area.
Brian Donnelly, a neighborhood activist and nearby resident, has been a licensed pilot for over 30 years and has lived in the immediate Jumbolair area for 14 years. At the P&Z meeting, he said, “The current owner is operating in a reckless and dangerous manner. This is your opportunity to ensure that this space is safe. Not only for the people inside of Jumbolair but the people within a mile radius of this airport.”
In a lengthy opposition letter to the board, Donnelly sharply criticized Bull’s use of the airport.
“Either the current owner does not know the rules or doesn’t care–either way, he is flagrantly violating airport safety rules,’’ Donnelly wrote. “Flying Vietnam-era helicopters 200 feet over my house so everything in my house rattles (including my body and the bodies of the animals on my farm) is not cool. It is point-blank irresponsible, dangerous and selfish. The owner is tempting fate–something bad is going to happen around here because of a recklessness that is almost criminal right now.’’
Donnelly also said the airport should have a manned control tower regulated by FAA authorized staff and noted that airport regulations stipulate distances that homes can be built from the centerline of a runway.
County concerns about air traffic and vehicular traffic in area
The county staff has also expressed concerns about the runway and uses of the airport noting that “commercial land use and uses would create a privately owned public airport” that “would bring outsiders in for maintenance, fuel and other services” and that the proposed 220 townhomes at the south end of the runway are not compatible with an airport.
The staff is still researching the airport’s status with other agencies including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation. The FAA generally regulates only publicly owned and public-use airports.
The Development Review Committee report also noted, “This development will have significant traffic impacts and likely will … require the need for offsite improvement.” One of the county concerns was traffic, noting that County Road 326 and U.S. 441 to Jacksonville Road would fail at buildout, and the level of service designation would be D.
Batsel and engineer David Tillman, who is also representing Bull, at the P&Z meeting countered the county’s concerns and what they characterized as misinformation on social media.
“I want to assure anyone who’s here in the audience that’s concerned about a flight school or a flight center or students or any commercial activity going on here, that is absolutely false and not true,” Batsel said.
He referred to proposed covenants for the new PUD that would restrict the property’s usage to Jumbolair owners only. Batsel also pointed out that the bulk of the PUD request is within the county’s Urban Growth Boundary and that is consistent with county development plans.
“We feel the application in front of you is appropriate,’’ he told the P&Z. “This property owner is entitled to the highest and best use of the property consistent with his neighbors.”
Airport noise and safety has residents worried
The P&Z board members asked about more airplanes coming if the development proceeds. Batsel explained that the runways, hangars and common areas would be part of the homeowner’s association amenities and would be available to all property owners. It’s designed as a “fly-in, fly-out community” for residents who want that amenity, “the same as a golf course or a clubhouse,” he said.
P&Z also asked about regulations for air traffic. Tillman explained the airport would be “self-reporting. There isn’t going to be a tower here.” Only homeowners would be allowed to access the airport, he said.
Tillman added he would be going out to the area to look at traffic and road impacts, to audible groans from the audience. “We want to be a quality neighbor,” he said.
That may be a tough sell for the development team. Public comment at the P&Z meeting was especially heated.
James Nelson angrily told the commission, “This was a very quiet neighborhood and then the property was purchased by a noise bully. He came in there with his little private planes and runs around for a couple hours in circles around the airport. It’s all so the guy can just make more money. He’s going to take from us—our peace and quiet—from the neighborhood with no compensation just so he can make more millions. This will ruin the whole neighborhood!”
Dave Clark lives in nearby Ocala Highlands Estates, just south of County Road 326 near the south end of the Jumbolair runway. He said, “We’ve got jet aircraft now, vintage aircraft, fighter planes from World War II, but it gets old, and it’s always loud.”
Clark noted that there was no indication in the new proposal of any restriction on engine size or limits to the volume of new air traffic or any reference to noise mitigation. “This will impact a much, much bigger area than just the area around the runway,” he said.
Other residents pointed out that overcrowding of schools is another factor to consider; that the Adena development to the east of the property is already approved and will impact the area; and that more air traffic presents safety issues.
Resident Christina Larson spoke passionately about the planes and helicopters that currently frighten her horses.
“My horses are scared s**tless of those Blackhawk helicopters flying super low over my property,’’ she said. “I wake up at 7 a.m. on a Sunday hearing choppers or the warplanes. I can’t even hear people on the telephone if I’m working. This is very, very bad.”
Horse Farms Forever weighs in
The nonprofit organization Horse Farms Forever initially opposed sections of the original application that requested 22 homes to be built on 40 acres within the Farmland Preservation Area. That plan, it stated in a position paper on its website and to Growth Services staff, does not allows for that density level in the FPA. The applicant agreed to comply with the FPA restrictions after HFF pointed out the conflict with both the FPA and Comprehensive Plan regulations.
The position paper also stated, “Because the remainder of the proposed Jumbolair development was located outside of the Farmland Preservation Area and inside the Urban Growth Area, Horse Farms Forever took no position on it.”
Area horse farm owners outside the FPA and within the UGB have little recourse to zoning and land use changes.
Neighborhood meeting did not win over nearby residents
The Nov. 28 neighborhood meeting with the Jumbolair team was a somewhat unusual tactic for developers in Marion County. Bull, Batsel, Tillman and Dr. Sarah James from the Marion County School Board were present to answer questions and listen to resident concerns. The goal was to “share the plans with you, listen to your input, incorporate your ideas, and address any concerns,” read the invitation letter sent by Batsel’s firm.
Angry and passionate residents shared personal stories about the impact of the proposed development, including veterans with PTSD living nearby who have reactions to airplane and helicopter noise along with multiple horse farm owners concerned about spooking their animals. Footage of low-flying helicopters and planes from Jumbolair over nearby horse farms has been documented.
The local opposition to the plans appears to be growing.
Schenk, who has stepped into the role of neighborhood organizer, has hosted several meetings with neighbors to review their options. The first one drew over 75 people to his home on West Anthony Road. An online petition open since Oct. 30 has collected nearly 700 signatures as of Nov. 30.
Also of interest about the project, on Monday, Oct. 30 the item was listed on the individual items section of the DRC agenda and heard the same day as the P&Z hearing. The agenda did not include notes normally used to briefly explain the project. Usually, projects move through the DRC review process first and then go to P&Z for further public comment and discussion. A request to county staff to explain this irregularity has not yet been answered.
At press time the application is still slated to be heard at the Dec. 5 BOCC meeting, but staff expects the applicant to request a continuance. Comment may still be permitted if Chair Michelle Stone wants to hear from the public on the proposal.