RaceTrac project voted down

The controversial project met heavy opposition from neighbors, Horse Farms Forever and Save Our Rural Area.

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Posted March 20, 2024 | By Belea T. Keeney belea@magnoliamediaco.com

In a 4-0 vote, the Marion County Board of County Commissioners slammed the brakes on a proposed RaceTrac fuel stop at the intersection of U.S. Highway 441 and County Road 329 during its March 19 meeting. Commissioner Kathy Bryant was absent from the vote due to serving on the elections board but expressed skepticism about the project before she had to leave the meeting.

The application was to rezone 11.06 acres of an overall ±38.62-acre parcel on the southwest corner of U.S. 441 and County Road 329, “for the development of a RaceTrac gas station, convenience store, and truck stop” per the county staff report. That intersection is the site of an awkwardly configured southbound merge pattern for Highways 441 and 301 and a similarly challenging northbound split of the two roads.

Opposition came from Horse Farms Forever, Save Our Rural Areas, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association, the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Economic Partnership, two nearby school principals and dozens of neighbors.

The nearly four-hour hearing covered extensive presentations from the applicant’s representatives including detailed assertions that the intersection was safe and appropriate for additional big-rig traffic. Commission Craig Curry pushed back on those assertions, saying it takes about 90 seconds for a big truck to make a left hand turn and that those turns on northbound Highway 441 and westbound Country Road 329 would cause traffic back-ups, slowdowns and possible accidents.

As the hearing wore on, opposing members of the public peeled off, one saying, “I’ve got to go feed my horses.” The room was nearly full at 2 p.m. when the meeting started, with about 160 people in the auditorium, and was down to fewer than 60 people when it ended at 7:30 p.m.

Opposition speakers focused on preserving the rural lands in that area, the inappropriate mix of truck traffic and nearby horse farms, the impact to school traffic and the general safety and crime issues with having another gas station and convenience store. Two legacy small gas station/convenience stores have been at that intersection since the early 1990s.

The RaceTrac site plan showed 16 car gas pumps, five truck refueling pumps and a 6,008-square-foot convenience store, but no designated parking for big-rig trucks. The plan was turned down by the Planning & Zoning Commission in a 5-1 vote at the November 2023 meeting. In a 3-0 vote, the Development Review Committee recommended denial of the rezoning in its February 2023 review of this project.

The request was to change the zoning from General Agriculture (A-1) to Rural Commercial (RC-1), which is an unusual zoning designation in Marion County. Only 20 parcels have that zoning, many of which have been grandfathered in from decades-long zoning designations implemented before the county’s Comprehensive Plan was put into effect in 1992. Of those 20 parcels, 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.

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