Putting the Cart Before the Horse: Marion County Officials Should Know Better

File photo: Motorists drive on Southwest College Road near the Heath Brook Commons shopping center in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

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Posted June 14, 2023 | Editorial by resident Mira Korber

The Marion County public is “so mad about traffic that they can’t see straight,” County Commissioner Kathy Bryant stated on the record at the April 24 Marion County commission’s roads workshop. If drivers can’t see down the road, it’s the congestion that impairs their sight. In fact, the public clearly sees how uncontrolled growth is well on its way to turning the Horse Capital of the World into an exemplary case of urban sprawl.

While developers bring forth rezoning application after application extolling the benefits of private pickleball courts, dog parks, and barbecue stations in the “Planned Unit Developments,” current citizens face the consequences of overdevelopment without sufficient infrastructure in place to support growth. Taxpayers rightly frustrated by their inability to travel from SW 60th Avenue to State Road 200 to County Road 484 in a reasonable timeframe have been reduced to an unfair characterization by commissioners: a mob of angry drivers infected with road rage.

Of late, the public interest in Marion County has taken a back seat to the private one. By granting most rezoning applications that have come before the board in the last decade, commissioners have blinded their current cavalry of citizen-drivers with empty speculation that revenue from the future tax base will catch up with its growing expenses.

Repeatedly, commissioners insisted that Florida statutes left them little or no recourse to deny any development requests without risking a lawsuit. Case law was cited as prohibiting denial of developments based on traffic. School concurrency, of which Marion County opted out of in 2014, was not an option to deny developments, either. The result today is obvious: by approving tens of thousands of housing units without sufficient impact fees or another avenue to offset the immediate needs residents of new developments will create commissioners have officially put the cart before the horse.

Yes, the Legislature has placed constraints on local governments in terms of how much they can raise impact fees over time. County Attorney Matthew “Guy” Minter and the commissioners are well-versed in why they cannot deny developments. Only recently, they discovered that state statutes would in fact make it illegal to approve developments that are at odds with their local government’s comprehensive plan.

Per Florida Code, Chapter 163.3202, Land development regulations: “(2) Local land development regulations shall contain specific and detailed provisions necessary or desirable to implement the adopted comprehensive plan and shall at a minimum:

(g) Provide that public facilities and services meet or exceed the standards established in the capital improvements element required by s. 163.3177 and are available when needed for the development, or that development orders and permits are conditioned on the availability of these public facilities and services necessary to serve the proposed development. A local government may not issue a development order or permit that results in a reduction in the level of services for the affected public facilities below the level of services provided in the local government’s comprehensive plan.”

Minter was quoted in a June 9 “Gazette” article calling this law “kind of like Jell-O.” The language in this statute is quite clear.

So, what exactly is the level of service (LOS) of Marion County roads? LOS varies according to road type, ranging from C to D, but state statute gives the commissioners at least one reason to start pumping the brakes on approving development. The question springs eternal of whether they will, in fact, change their pattern of behavior after learning that they do have the ability to “just say no.”

Image copied from: 2023-10965 – Road Infrastructure-Development (legistar.com)

That our county attorney and commissioners are only now learning the rules of the road for appropriate levels of service – after more than a decade in their seats – ranges from embarrassing to shameful. As citizens, who can we trust if we cannot be sure that our elected officials are even aware of the levers to temper the “growth at any cost” strategy? For all the commissioners’ claims that the law ties their hands when it comes to denying development plans, it appears they never took the time to read the law.

Back in December 2022, the commissioners floated the idea of a temporary moratorium on approving new developments in Marion County on account of overwhelmed infrastructure, but the idea never was pursued in the January 2023 annual strategic planning session. The possibility of such a pause hit the headlines 17 days after a group of neighbors and I legally appealed the commissioners’ decision to approve the Calibrex Ocala-Ontario development in southwest Marion County, a project that would bring an additional 1,200 single family homes, townhomes, and apartments (read: over 7,000 daily car trips) to SW 60th Avenue between SW 52nd Street and SW 59th Street.

Have you seen the orange banners at SW 60th Avenue, across from Fairfield Village and Bahia Oaks subdivisions? Perhaps when you were waiting for the light to change, half a mile away? These banners “conceal” where an additional 584 units in three-story apartment buildings will emerge, in addition to Calibrex, and where 40 acres of trees stood until March 20.

The realizations keep coming for Marion County officials. Back in December, when the idea of the moratorium surfaced, Commissioner Bryant astutely said, “We have so much infrastructure that we are behind on. We have no idea where it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, how we’re going to fund it.” Fast forward to April and county officials are racking their brains to find hundreds of millions in funding sources for road construction projects alone (not to mention badly needed dollars for schools, public safety, utilities or wastewater services that will be required to meet the needs of Marion County residents old and new).

With over $659,285,020 in non-funded road construction projects, the commissioners have an opportunity to take control of the growth that has been so poorly managed. The answer comes from the state: Chapter 163 obligates the commission to deny developments if public facilities and services cannot feasibly be maintained.

When rethinking the road system, Marion County privileges developers over residents in recurring acts of political theatre at the MacPherson Auditorium. Here’s an example of how the county staff and commissioners plan expansions to the county road system. In the Nov. 15, 2022 public hearing about the Calibrex Ocala-Ontario development, the issue of the SW 52nd Street and SW 60th Avenue intersection was brought up, where the developers need right-of-way for their entrance but were struggling to compromise with a neighboring landowner.

The developers’ attorney, Jimmy Gooding, stated  “the county has always wanted 52nd Street … there is a public need for this road, it’s been on the county’s radar for 20 years.” In other words, the county would solve the developers’ problem through eminent domain. If SW 52nd Street has been a priority for all this time, then why is it not in the Transit Improvement Plan? The commission did not raise these questions at the meeting. They looked at the following drawing by attorney Gooding and approved the Calibrex development.


Screenshot from November 15, 2022 Public Hearing, regarding discussion of SW 52nd St right-of-way at meeting where conceptual plan was approved for Calibrex.

Clearly, Marion County officials are greenlighting developments without the foresight, plans, funding, or infrastructure in place to enable developments to complement and grow the community for the public good. They approve first and go to eminent domain later.

We need to stop acting surprised when approving thousands of units leads to road congestion, when the revenue doesn’t grow to match the expenses. We need public officials who can get a grip on the levers they have. We need to stop caving to the private interests of developers who will go to any length to avoid paying their fair share.

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