Protecting rural lands with land development code changes

Horse Farms Forever at the forefront of proposed changes to limit commercial uses in designated rural areas.

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Posted April 4, 2024 | By Belea T. Keeney

Editor’s Note : When this article was initially published in print, the third hearing date was incorrect. The final third public hearing on the LDC change is scheduled for 5:30 on April 16.

With developers coveting the nearly 200,000 acres of largely unspoiled property within Marion County’s Farmland Preservation Area, county officials will soon consider proposed limits on what kinds of commercial projects would be allowed on the many farms and rolling pastures sitting in the heart of the “Horse Capital of the World.”

On March 19, Marion County commissioners held the second of three required public hearings on an application by the nonprofit group Horse Farms Forever (HFF) to amend the county’s Land Development Code. The amendment seeks to refine the Rural Commercial zoning designation and spell out what would be the appropriate use of parcels in rural areas.

Notably, the HFF amendment—while in response to the RaceTrac application, see related story—will not apply retroactively to that project, only to future requests. 

The HFF proposal aims to limit uses for rural property that now is zoned for some commercial use, including whether owners could apply for a proposed Rural Commercial (RC-1) designation. It also states current agriculture-zoned parcels could be not rezoned as Rural Commercial. 

Only 20 parcels in Marion County carry the Rural Commercial zoning designation. Of those, 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. 

The amendment limits, but does not prohibit, select commercial uses in the FPA. Under the proposal, businesses such as those that sell and repair tractors and other farm equipment, veterinary offices and riding academies would be allowed. A mom-and-pop bait shop would be allowed; a massive Bass Pro Shops outlet, would not.

In a sparsely attended Jan. 24 meeting, members of the county Land Development Regulation Commission (LDRC), a county advisory board, voted 5-0 to send the revised and shortened version of the HFF amendment to the BOCC. It reads: “The Rural Commercial classification is intended to provide for limited agricultural related commercial uses that would be appropriate on Rural Lands not located in a Rural Activity Center. All undeveloped parcels located in the Rural Lands may be eligible to rezone to this classification and must do so prior to applying for development approval.” 

Revised amendment language proposed by HFF

Ken Weyrauch, deputy director of Growth Services, said at the Jan. 24 Planning & Zoning Commission meeting that HFF has been working closely with his department to craft the amendment language. The staff report recommended approval of the proposed HFF application language.

The HFF application reads, in part, “Based on extensive and detailed discussion with Growth Services staff, the RC-1 zoning classification was created with the original intent that all legacy commercial parcels within the Rural Lands (i.e., parcels having commercial zoning classifications that predated the adoption of the Comprehensive Plan and the Rural future land use designation) would rezone to RC-1 prior to seeking development approval. The intent was not for the RC-1 zoning classification to create additional commercial uses in the Rural Lands by rezoning agriculturally zoned properties.”

Matt Brockway, the attorney representing HFF, said the proposed amendment “best embodies the original intent behind the RC-1 zoning district and is consistent with the (comprehensive) plan.”  

Attorney Robert Batsel represents RaceTrac, which seeks to build a gas station, convenience store and truck fueling stop on 11 acres at the southwest corner of County Road 326 and U.S. 441/301. Batsel resigned from the LDRC last fall to avoid conflicts of interest and was the sole person to speak during public comments on this item. Batsel said the suggested language from HFF was too limiting.

“The effect of this proposed change eliminates a property owner’s right to even apply for rezoning to Rural Commercial,’’ he said. “This would apply to all ag-zoned property in the rural lands throughout Marion County, not just the Farmland Preservation Area. They (property owners) should at least have the right to apply. 

“Some parcels out in the rural lands that are ag related may be appropriate for commercial use,” Batsel continued. “And we have examples of that in the rural lands. This district is unique and allows for low-intensity commercial uses that benefit rural residents and serve the daily basic needs of residents. This (proposed amendment) is taking a sledgehammer to the issue.”

The LDRC Chair David Tillman is also president of the Marion County Building Industry Association and owns Tillman & Associates Engineering LLC, a firm that represents many of the development projects in Marion County. 

At the meeting, he, said, “I see the necessity for the protections that occurs there. But my problem is that the language for section A basically strips the rights of anybody that has rural land and has an agricultural designation and prevents them from asking for this zoning. (It says) we’re going to limit the rural areas’ ability to put in commercial areas where potentially they would be somewhat necessary for people to receive goods and services.” 

Speaking with the “Gazette” in March after the January LRDC meeting, Tillman said that he personally, his engineering firm Tillman & Associates Engineering and the MCBIA “totally get” why the FPA is important. “We know that’s why a lot of people come here,” for that protected land and the equine uses. But the HFF amended language is far too restrictive, he said. 

LDRC did line-by-line discussion and revisions

During its 75-minute discussion, LDRC members went through the application line by line, revising the intent language and proposed uses. They struck several items from the proposed uses section, including sporting goods shops, concerned that something as large as a Bass Pro Shop would apply, which they felt would be inappropriate for the area. However, a small bait and tackle operation would be allowed, they said. Other items that were struck were gun stores; professional offices; and restaurants with drive-thru windows.  

Commercial usages that would be appropriate under the HFF application and that the LDRC approved include agricultural chemical and fertilizer sales; agricultural farm equipment, tools, implements, machinery, including lease, repair; blacksmith or farrier shops; riding academies; farm irrigation, equipment sales, installation, and repair; farm produce, sales, packing, crating, shipping, retail, wholesale; farm supplies including seed, feed, fertilizer, fencing posts and tack; hatchery, fish, or fowl, wholesale; horse trailers and farm wagons, including repair; plant nursery, retail, wholesale; and veterinary office and supplies. 

Tim Gant, president of Save Our Rural Area, or SORA, commented by email about the HFF proposal.

“Without this amendment, these instances will continue to plague the county with unwarranted and unwanted development. If the amendment is changed, it won’t negate the RaceTrac application as it can’t be applied retroactively.”

Gant, who plans to attend the March 19 hearing along with SORA members and neighbors, said, “This commission is well aware of the existential threat to the FPA that (the RaceTrac) application has to the continuing of the FPA. Our hope is they will see it as such, and both deny the application and move the (HFF) amendment forward to be ratified.”

The third and final hearing must be held in the evening and is slated for 5:30 p.m. on April 16.

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