Striking a Balance

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Posted April 30, 2021 | By Carlos Medina, | Photo by Dave Miller, special to the Ocala Gazette

County weighs need for development verses preserving agriculture

[Dave Miller, special to the Ocala Gazette]

A new boom of development projects in Marion County is rekindling decades old arguments about how to strike a balance between the county’s growth and preserving agricultural land.

Recently, the county denied one project that proposed building more than 200 units in the northwest area of the county and approved a scaled back project originally seeking 680 units near Summerfield.

The northwest project would have been surrounded by agricultural land off Northwest 60th Avenue. Just to the east of the proposed development is the expansive Ocala Palms Golf & County Club.

Northwest 60th Avenue served as a boundary between residential and agricultural land. But a few years ago, the county moved that boundary west to Northwest 80th Avenue.

Kimberleigh Dinkins, a senior planner with the county’s growth services, said the project generally fit the area, though there were concerns about open spaces and traffic access in the proposed plan.

“It’s an area we’re looking at specifically for additional employment opportunities. We know that the area is going to grow in the near future, and we need to be able to provide a number of housing types here,” Dinkins said.

But at least three county commissioners didn’t feel the area was ready for development citing the lack of services available.

Commissioner Craig Curry, however, had simpler reasons for not supporting the plan.

“It makes sense to develop it, but not yet,” Curry said. “I am not anti-growth but there are parts of it (the county), to me, we have to wrap our arms around and save for as long as we can.”

Commissioner Kathy Bryant, however, said the plan would start to fill in the gap of development between Ocala Palms and the Worth Equestrian Center off Northwest 80th Avenue.

But Commissioner Carl Zalak preferred the county take a closer look at growth options for the area to better identify an overall development plan.

In the end, the commission voted 3-2 to deny the development. Commissioner Jeff Gold joined Curry and Zalak in voting against, while Commissioner Michelle Stone and Bryant voted for the plan.

The commission also faced another development plan calling for 680-unit residential development called Carissa Oaks on property adjacent to mostly rural property near Summerfield.

While the 82 acres near Summerfield was already zoned for industrial, commercial and professional offices, the property sat undeveloped for more than 15 years. The plan for 62 two-story quadplexes and nine three-story apartment buildings faced objections from some in the area who worried about the concentration of homes and the effect on traffic, schools and other resources. 

The commission eventually voted 3-2 to approve development of 66 acres. The approval came after the property owner withdrew plans to build 136 units on 16 acres on Southeast 135th Street.

This time it was Stone and Bryant who voted against the plan, with Bryant citing her concern of school overcrowding and overburdening the Belleview water system.

Planning for future growth is a constant moving target.

The county plans a strategic workshop in July to discuss the latest 5-year comprehensive plan.

Years ago, the debate revolved around the development along State Road 200. With a few exceptions, little open land remains and most of those have development plans in place. The former Winding Oaks farm, which once included Tartan Farms, at the corner of Southwest 60th Avenue and SR 200 was the last working horse farm. It closed in 2014. Recently, an amended plan to build about 3,000 homes on the 980 acres of Winding Oaks was approved by the city.

In an attempt to preserve other horse farms, the county established the Farmland Preservation Area in 2005, which covers about 190,000 acres of land in northwest Marion County.

But in 2017, the commission moved the FPA boundary west to accommodate about 1,000 acres of the WEC project. Last year, WEC developer, RLR Investments, wanted to chip away at the FPA with plans to develop 280 acres in the boundary. That plan was turned down, but the challenge to the boundary keeps groups like Horse Farms Forever busy.

“It’s important that we balance economic development with protecting the very thing that makes Ocala unique – its horse farms and open spaces… There is already ample land in Marion County for economic development as over 55 square miles is permitted for development,” said Busy Shires, director of conservation strategies for HFF.

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