State agencies respond to Marion County proposed land use changes to facilitate WEC Jockey Club plans

Ocala Jockey Club on May 13, 2022

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Posted May 13, 2022 | By Rosemarie Dowell

The site of the proposed WEC Jockey Club development could be home to federally or state-protected or threatened species and may contain human remains and artifacts related to Fort Drane, a Second Seminole Indian War fort dating back to the mid-1830s.

Those details and more are contained in letters (read them with this link) from state agencies tasked with reviewing and approving Marion County’s proposed amendments to its Comprehensive Plan, which would allow the construction of a 200-room hotel, 100-site RV park, 94 homes, polo fields, a 9,000-seat stadium and more on the 1,000-plus acre property.

None of the nearly dozen reviewing agencies objected to the proposed changes, including the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which means Marion’s County Commissioners can now set a final hearing and vote on the amendments as well as vote on the developer’s Planned United Development (PUD) application, likely sometime in June.

“I’m disappointed of course,” said Jerome Feaster, founder of the non-profit group, Save Our Rural Lands (SORA), which strongly opposes the plans. “I would think there would be more concern about the project from the state.”

“I’m especially concerned about the impact of 94 homes and all the wastewater the development will create,” he said.

The former Ocala Jockey Club was purchased in August for $10.5 million by Golden Ocala Equestrian LLC, owners of the World Equestrian Center, which soon announced plans for further development of the site.

In a 4 to 1 vote March 1, Commissioners approved sending the proposed amendments to the state agencies for the review and comment, despite the WEC Jockey Club project being inside the county’s Farmland Preservation Area (FPA) and outside the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB).

The property is located on rural-two lane West County Road 318, about a mile west of I-75 in the community of Irvine in north Marion County.

The Comprehensive Plan Amendment 2022-L01 proposes the new land use designation on the future land use map while Amendment 2022-L02 is the associated text amendment, enabling the property’s designation to be changed from Rural to WEC.

“They are wanting to turn the Jockey Club into a housing development,” said Feaster.

County staff were against the developer’s application, but the Planning and Zoning Commission in a meeting prior to the commission meeting narrowly recommended approval to the County Commission by a 3-2 vote.

County Commissioner Craig Curry, who cast the dissenting vote March 1 said he couldn’t comment on the agency reviews or the project outside of an official meeting but said he made his position clear during the meeting.

Although none of the agencies objected to the Large-Scale Future Land Use Map (FLUM) amendment to Marion’s Comprehensive Plan, several of them did provide comments and recommendations for the development.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission noted the site is found near, within, or adjacent to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Consultation Area for the federally threatened Sand Skink.

It also noted the site is a potential habitat for federally and state-listed species including the Eastern Indigo snake, Southeastern American Kestrel, Florida Sandhill Crane, Florida Burrowing Owl, Gopher Tortoise, and the Florida Pine Snake.

FWC recommended surveys of species’ habitats before construction, while advising the developer to follow permitting guidelines for each of the species, if discovered on the property.

“We (SORA) know the species are there,” said Gail Stern, a member of SORA. “I would hope an independent survey would be conducted from someone outside Golden Ocala.”

In its review, the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, noted the recording of many cultural resources in the general vicinity of the site, as well as multiple attempts to locate Fort Drane in the immediate area, which is thought to contain human remains, protected under Florida law.

In addition, it said, a cultural resource assessment survey had not been conducted to determine if unrecorded historic resources are present and said development should be “sensitive,” to locating, assessing, and avoiding potential adverse impacts to any resources.

SORA’s Stern said: “Let’s sit down and figure out who’s on that land and what’s on that land.”

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in its April 8 response, wrote the site is within the Rainbow Spring Group and Rainbow River Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), and the spring shed boundaries of the Group, and activities associated with the proposed project have the potential to impact water quality.

Swiftmud wrote the amendment does not identify an adequate water supply source for determining water supply availability and noted the developer did not address efforts to be taken for securing water supply for the amendment.  All plan amendments are required to address water supply availability, including the potential water source or raw water, it said.

During the March planning and zoning meeting, citizens, and nearby residents of the property, along with the Ocala Horse Alliance and members of SORA, spoke out against the project, citing traffic concerns, wastewater, harm to the environment and urban sprawl.

“That county staff that I respect a lot, have raised objections in the past,” said Stern, noting SORA filed detailed objections to the PUD with the state. “That staff can sit down with people that know this area and make guidelines that will benefit 318 instead of harm it.”

I would like to see reduced density on the WEC site,” she said. “A lot of people have great suggestions, and the county should listen to them.”

However, some citizens, along with the non-profit Horse Farms Forever, founded to preserve the county’s extensive horse farms, spoke in support of the project because the WEC Jockey Club will preserve the farm as an equestrian facility.

During the March meeting, County Commissioner Carl Zalak III, who is also the board’s chair, said he supported the project.

“The biggest concern…is going to be traffic and making sure that we phased the development correctly, and don’t let it get ahead of the traffic improvements that need to be done. If we do that well, I think it’ll be a successful project,” Zalak III said after the meeting.

In its approval letter, the Florida DEO said if the County does not resolve reviewing agency comments, the comments could form the basis for a challenge to the amendment after adoption.

“I hope the commissioners vote to have the project drastically reduced and put some stringent guidelines on it,” said Stern.

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