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Marion County roundup: Horse Farms Forever hosts 3rd conservation summit; turnpike tensions still high; County Road 318 updates

A woman sits in a chair wearing a pin addressing transportation isses in the state. It reads "Rural Florida says NO toll roads"
A resident of the Farmland Preservation Area, Judy Estzler, wears a pin protesting the Northern Turnpike Extension project on Monday at the event. (Katherine Corcoran/WUFT)

OCALA, Florida – Some local residents complained here Monday that the state’s unique environment, especially its horse country, was taking a backseat to economic development issues at a conservation summit hosted by Horse Farms Forever.

Transportation and traffic encroachment onto horse farmland was the topic of discussion at the Ocala Breeder Sales facility, with speakers Jared Perdue, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, and Tracy Straub, assistant Marion County administrator, providing updates on current and future road projects.

“The focus of this event is to help continue community-wide conversation about how to grow, because growth is happening,” said Busy Shires, director of conservation strategies at Horse Farms Forever. “But we want to make sure we grow in a way that protects public safety, and also protects what makes Marion County so special, our equine industry.”

Transportation and traffic ranked as the second most important issue facing Marion in the 2022 Marion County Quality of Life Survey.

Conserving horse farms and land is the goal of Horse Farms Forever, which was founded in 2018. Serving as a government watchdog, the nonprofit works to ensure development does not overtake farms.

“These beautiful, iconic horse farms are Ocala’s ocean, and the magnificent live oak trees are its coral reefs,” said Bernie Little, president of Horse Farms Forever. “They need to be respected, protected and preserved.”

Perdue did not offer any assurances at the meeting about protecting the environment or consider climate change in highway planning. But he did say his department would be sensitive to community concerns.

“We know we have to do something,” he said. “Let’s step back, let’s re-engage with our communities.”

Concerns expressed Monday appeared to be rooted in leftover from shelved plans to extend the Turnpike.

Officials from Horse Farms Forever said they were pleased to hear current projects are not disrupting the farm area and were optimistic about continuing to work with local and state governments.

The equine industry in Marion County is a $2.6 billion industry annually and constitutes nearly 20% of employment in the county.

Horse Farms Forever works to protect what is known as the Farmland Preservation Area. The FPA covers nearly 200,000 acres in the northwest area of Marion County, and was created in 2004 to protect farmland.

The area has a mineral-rich soil ideal for pasturing horses, which is found only in four places in the world.

While not entirely shielded from development, there are restrictions that favor farmland preservation in the farmland area, as approved by the board of county commissioners.

Two projects discussed today, the Ronald Reagan Turnpike and County Road 318, would potentially cut through farmland.

Perdue: Northern Turnpike Extension and Improvements to Interstate-75

The Northern Turnpike Extension is a paused Florida Department of Transportation project to construct a toll road through Citrus, Levy, Marion and Sumter counties.

Public outcry led the department to shelve the Northern Turnpike extension until “options can be reassessed to include important county concerns,” according to the turnpike website.

Perdue, secretary of the transportation secretary, emphasized community in his presentation Tuesday.

“We hear you. We don’t want to put a road right in the heart of your community,” he said.

Perdue also said the proposed turnpike is part of discussions about improvements to I-75.

Improvements will be made in I-75 in the area, and the department of transportation is committed to enhancing mobility and addressing the lack of reliability on the road.

Perdue said the department is working to four-lane the road in some areas, and build an interchange at NW 49th Street, with expected completion in late 2024.

Straub: County Road 318 and Improvements to I-75

Straub, an assistant county administrator for Marion County, addressed issues with County Road 318.

Slated to go through the Farmland Preservation Area, the project has received backlash after a zoning request change was submitted to change 453 acres of the farmland area from agriculture to planned unit development.

The development would be an expansion of the World Equestrian Center Jockey Club and Sunny Oaks.

Straub said she was specifically asked to give an update about 318 in her presentation.

“The county has nothing going on at CR 318,” she said, before slightly raising her voice and adding, “Nothing.”

If everything goes through, Straub said one of the things they will be required to look at is traffic needs.

“You’re looking at well over $60 million worth of improvements,” Straub said.

Additionally, the county is working with the transportation department to make improvements to I-75, including building a new road to the interchange at NW 49th Street.

Some attendees were still wary following the presentation, specifically of FDOT and the turnpike.

“It was a red herring,” said Robin Orlandi, a Dunnellon resident, of the department of transportation’s presentation.

Orlandi, wearing a “Rural Florida Says No to Toll Roads” pin, said the turnpike is the third proposed toll road in recent years.

In 2018, the Coastal Connector, which would have cut through the farmland area, was stopped.

Shires said the department of transportation has demonstrated a willingness to listen to the community and worked with Marion County in abandoning the proposed connector.

“When the Coastal Connector was proposed in 2018, the entire community came together because that was going to go right through the middle FPA, through some of the most iconic horse farms in Marion County,” said Shires.

But Orlandi has less confidence in the transportation department.

“They’re building infrastructure that is all fossil fuel based, there is no conversation about climate change,” Orlandi said

Judy Estzler, a landowner in the farmland area, echoed the emphasis on economic development over environment.

Estzler said if road improvements need to be made, they should add to existing roads rather than build entirely new ones.

“We don’t need any further toll roads,” Estzler said, “I grew up outside of New York City, what do I want a bunch of concrete for? I prize what I see every day, I value it, and I know that so many other people do.”

Katherine is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.