A highway the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had planned to build between Jacksonville and Tampa is once again causing an uproar among many Marion County residents concerned that it poses a threat to their beloved horse country.
At its regular meeting this week, the Marion County Board of Commissioners discussed changes to its comprehensive land use plan intended to clarify the county’s determination to protect rural areas. But some residents were concerned that the plan did not include more forceful language.
FDOT originally proposed the so-called “Coastal Connector” in April 2018. The project would have extended the Suncoast Parkway through Citrus and Marion counties, connecting them with Interstate 75 or U.S. Highway 301.
The project was designed to relieve some of the traffic on Interstate 75 by providing a more direct alternative route from Jacksonville to Tampa and also would have provided another evacuation route on the state’s west coast.
However, in August 2018, after public outcry about the proposed road, FDOT abandoned plans for the project, according to a letter from then-FDOT Secretary Mike Dew to County Commissioner Kathy Bryant.
Troy Roberts FDOT spokesman said, “Based on the feedback that we received, we decided to pursue other options and the Coastal Connector project is not in our current plans. Instead we are focusing on improvements to Interstate-75.”
Nonetheless, in response to this Coastal Connector proposal, the Marion County Commissioners decided to revise parts of the county’s comprehensive plan to address concerns about roadway design in the county’s designated Farmland Preservation Areas. During the Jan. 15 hearing on the plan, the commissioners chose not to include language proposed by Florida Audubon Society that would have extended protection to south and west Marion County outside the Farmland Preservation Area.
Commissioner Carl Zalak said the Jan. 15 meeting was meant to give commissioners the chance to hear from everyone concerned about changes to the comprehensive plan, which had never officially included the language Florida Audubon Society had recommended back in September of 2018.
“The Audubon recommendations — just like other citizens and everybody, I mean — that was never actually part of our plan that we were looking at, nor was that part of staff recommendation.”
Zalak said commissioners haven’t finalized the plan and could still make changes at the next public hearing, which will be during the commission’s regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 5 at 9 a.m.
“We’re not putting an end to this,” Zalak said. “The only person that could put an end to this is FDOT, and they have.
“The only thing we’re looking to do to our comprehensive plan is make sure that we have a strategy for future conversations so that our comprehensive plan is strong, but also nimble enough for us to continue to make sure that Marion County is protected.”
Many Marion County residents, including Dunnellon Mayor Dale Burns, were concerned that without the language proposed by Florida Audubon Society, the comprehensive plan would not prevent toll roads or expressways from being built through the entire western side of the county, outside the Farmland Preservation Area, including Dunnellon, Rainbow River, Rainbow Springs, Ross Prairie State Forest, Halpata Tastanaki Nature Preserve and other conservation land on that side of the county.
Dunnellon Mayor Dale Burns wrote, in a letter to Commission Chairwoman Michelle Stone, that restoring the language of the comprehensive plan would ultimately ensure the protection of the Farmland Preservation Area.
But Zalak said the commissioners must have evidence to justify protecting specific areas from road development.
“Every piece of language that we have has to be backed up with data, right?” Zalak said. “That’s why we, you know, didn’t just include all of Marion County as the Audubon would have liked us to, or Southwest Marion County.”
Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said the cancellation of the “Coastal Connector” plan does not mean future Department of Transportation administrators won’t propose something similar. The county needs to prioritize protecting Marion County’s farmland and environment, he said.
“It’s just something, now that it’s been brought up, we’re going to have to stay on top of forever,” Guinn said. “That just can’t happen.”
The original Coastal Connector proposal led some Marion County residents to form Horse Farms Forever, dedicated to the preservation of horse farms and protection of horses, soil and water in Marion County.
“If a toll road came through, it would destroy what is peaceful and beautiful here,” said Amy Agricola, Horse Farms Forever executive director.
Agricola said she understands the importance of growth for Marion County and that Horse Farms Forever members do not oppose growth. However, Agricola said, the county should develop undeveloped land in Marion County’s urban boundary areas before breaking ground in the preserved farmland.
Carolin Phillips, 73, lives on the outskirts of Dunnellon likely to be affected if FDOT ever does build a parkway or toll road like the coastal connector.
“Had I known that this was going to be a major problem, I probably wouldn’t have bought in this area,” Phillips said, adding that the proposed route for the Coastal Connector would have gone right through land two farms over from hers.
“I would have seen it, heard it, smelled it every day, and my horse would have been very stressfully impacted, as well as myself,” Phillips said.
Not all Marion County residents oppose the idea of building new roads through the county. Aaron Thomas, 36, had expressed his support for the Coastal Connector project on Marion County Facebook page post about the proposed road.
“Ocala is growing. Marion County is growing, and a lot of the younger people, too, now we want to see progress in new roads, new buildings, new jobs coming into the county,” he said.