Reasons for WEC Jockey Club approval


File photo: 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 July 6, 2022 | By Rosemarie Dowell
Rosemarie@ocalagazette.com

Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to specifically state that commissioners Zalak, Stone, and Gold, declined in-person or telephone interviews. Commissioner Zalak’s agreement to answer written questions does not constitute an “interview” opportunity. The Gazette’s policy about including the circumstances we face gathering information can be read using this link.

The three Marion County Commissioners who approved the massive WEC Jockey Club project against county staff recommendations and overwhelming opposition from nearby residents and adjacent landowners have declined requests for in-person or telephone interviews for a follow-up story on the development.

Commissioners Michelle Stone, Jeff Gold and Chairman Carl Zalak III, June 21 voted to approve an amended application from Golden Ocala Equestrian, LLC., owned by billionaires Larry and Mary Roberts which will allow the construction of 94 homes, a 100-site RV park, 120,000-square feet of retail space, 9,000-seat stadium, polo fields and more on the former site of the Ocala Jockey Club in rural northwest Marion County.

The approval came after the Commissioners voted 3-to-2 to adopt two amendments to its Comprehensive Plan; one to its future land use map and the other the associated text amendment. The changes allowed the property’s zoning to be changed from mostly agricultural to a Planned Unit Development (PUD).

Commissioners Kathy Bryant and Craig Curry cast the dissenting votes in the 3-to-2 decision, during a sometimes tense nearly six-hour meeting attended by a capacity crowd of roughly 250 people, the vast majority of which vehemently opposed the project. Nearly three dozen residents spoke out against the application, oftentimes pleading with the commission to preserve the area’s rural character and turn down the developer’s request.

The 1,029-acre property is located within the county’s Farmland Preservation Area (FPA) and outside its Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) on narrow two-lane County Road 318 in Irvine, an area laced with horse farms and dotted with ancient oaks, fauna and flora, but still less than three miles from I-75.

The Roberts, who’ve lived in the Ocala area since the 1990s and own the World Equestrian Center (WEC) in Ocala, and R&L Carriers, an intrastate trucking company, among others, purchased the property in August for $10.5 million and soon announced plans to build a second WEC location on the site.

County staff, led by senior planner Chris Rison, recommended denial of the PUD application, citing several reasons, including that it was not consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, would adversely affect the public interest and would not be compatible with the surrounding uses.

Tracy Straub, Assistant County Administrator, Public Works and Growth Services, also detailed traffic and road impacts the development would have on roadways, particularly County Road 318, and its 1964-era interchange at I-75, County Road 225 and others, citing a traffic study conducted as part of the county’s review of the project.

Total road improvements would cost more than $60 million, and the developers would foot the majority of the cost, but not all.

Angel Roussel, Assistant County Administrator, Public and Environmental Services, meanwhile, discussed WEC Jockey Club’s need for a water plant and waste water treatment facility. The total acreage needed for both facilities would be roughly 25 acres.

Stone, just prior to the vote, said she didn’t believe the project would adversely affect the public interest, contradicting county staff’s analysis.

“Based on where it is proximally located off an interstate exchange,” explained Stone.  “It is also contiguous to an employment center as well as there is another RV park within a stone’s throw from there as well.”

“It will be compliant with the Comprehensive Plan based on the changes that we are making,” she said.  “It will be compatible with the surrounding area based on the activities that are already developed there.”

The closest RV park to the WEC Jockey Club, Ocala North RV Park, is located on Northwest County Road 225 in Reddick.

“Nobody can tell me that this isn’t going to increase significantly the intensity of use on this property”, said Curry also at the end of the meeting. “The Roberts are one of the most philanthropic people – families in Marion County, you don’t see half of what they do.”

“But this is not a benevolent act; this is going to be a money-making venture,” he said. “Don’t do it.”

Even so, the alternative PUD application, which took a 200-room hotel off the table and altered the size of an entrance sign by nearly half, as well as other concessions from Golden Ocala, was approved by the 3-to-2 vote. The four-floor hotel with a ballroom was eliminated from the application after Zalak suggested it at the beginning of the meeting, but the developer was allowed to keep an existing clubhouse on the property to use as a meeting space and restaurant.

On June 24, the Gazette emailed Gold, Stone and Zalak requesting an interview for a follow-up story on their respective votes, but each declined the following Monday via the county’s public relations office. The Gazette did not seek interviews with Commissioners Kathy Bryant and Craig Curry, since they voiced several reasons for opposing the developing during the meeting.

Zalak, who is up for reelection along with Kathy Bryant in November, however, eventually agreed to answer questions submitted via email.

Here’s the Q&A from Zalak, verbatim.

Question: What evidence did you rely on in determining that WEC Ocala Jockey Club rezoning would not adversely affect public interests?

This PUD is equine related and is replacing an equine related use of the area. The applicant proposed 100 RV units, and currently there are 400 RV units allowed across the street.

Question: What evidence did you rely on in deciding that the WEC Ocala Jockey Club was compatible with the surrounding area?

This PUD is equine related and is replacing an equine related use of the area. The applicant proposed 100 RV units, and currently there are 400 RV units allowed across the street.

Question: What does “rural character” as defined in Marion County’s Comprehensive Plan mean to you?

Rural character to me is the same as what is defined in the County’s Comprehensive Plan and is an important factor that is taken into consideration with every land use application that comes before the County Commission.

Question: What is your reasoning for voting for the project, despite county’s staff recommendation for denial and the dozens of nearby citizens and landowners who voiced their opposition to it as well?

Until the County’s Comprehensive Plan was amended with new text for this specific land use and location, county staff did not have the ability to recommend approval. For the text amendment changes to happen, it had to come before the County Commission for approval in accordance with Florida Statutes 163.3184.

County commissioners evaluated the text amendment and listened to people in the surrounding area. I voted as I did based on the testimony received, because this project is an equine facility that replaces an existing equine facility, the removal of the hotel, and because it fits the character and nature of the rural area within the Farmland Preservation Area. I believe that by having these equine eventing facilities in the FPA we will protect our farms in the long term.

Question: County Staff in its analysis said the WEC Jockey Club PUD application was not consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, would adversely affect the public interest and would not be compatible with the surrounding uses. What convinced you to ignore the analysis and give the project the green light?

County staff’s analysis was not ignored. County staff did not have the ability to recommend approval until the Comprehensive Plan was amended with new text for this specific land use and location. In order for the text amendment changes to happen, it had to come before the County Commission for approval in accordance with Florida Statute 163.3184. The proposed text amendment changes were brought forward at the June 21 public hearing.

Question: During the beginning of the applicant’s discussion of the WEC Jockey Club project you asked attorney Jimmy Gooding to ask his client to take the 200-room hotel off the table. Was your approval of the project contingent on Golden Ocala Equestrian eliminating it?

The removal of the hotel was one of many factors I considered prior to my vote. This removal reduced the commercial intensity of the project and enhances the project’s rural aspects.

Question: What about the potential adverse impact the development will have on the area’s critical water resources, including the Rainbow Spring Group and its spring shed boundaries, as well as the wildlife species that inhabit the former Jockey Club?

Per the responses from state agencies (FWC and DEP), we are in currently in compliance at this point in the process. For your reference, the comments from each of these agencies is attached.

(The Gazette covered this subject in a May 13 story, here’s the link:      ).

Question: The project calls for a bevy of road improvements, including the widening of County Road 318, which will entail acquiring right of way and property through eminent domain. What about the impact it will have on some property owners along the road, who will be forced to give up their homes and move?

There is a requirement for the applicant to provide necessary turn lanes into the property. The necessity of additional road improvements is not able to be determined until additional traffic studies have been completed at a later step in the process. If traffic studies suggest that additional road improvements are necessary, and completing that step requires acquisition of new right of way, the acquisition would not necessarily be acquired via eminent domain. There are numerous factors that would have to be considered before a road-widening project would be initiated.

Question: What about the county’s share of cost for road improvements, including the 60s era I-75 interchange? Where is the money to fund the county’s cost going to come from?

I don’t believe the county will have any cost associated with these projects.

Question: What about the fairness of allowing WEC Jockey Club to build homes on 3-acre-plus sites when the county requires ten-acre home sites within the FPA.

The Ocala jockey club is just over 1000 acres and they are asking for 94 home units, so the density they have requested is equal to that of building homes on ten-acre sites. By building homes on 3-acre plus sites, we will keep the residential areas in smaller clusters and maximize the land available for the equine industry.

 

Question: How is the WEC Jockey Clue approval not precedent for allowing other developers to build within the FPA; property owners could argue that you allowed Golden Ocala to build a major development and should allow them to do the same.

This project, and any project with this land use designation, would have to have a text amendment for its specific location and be evaluated based on the benefits of its own development within the community.