Growing, growing, gone: Marion County residents bemoan development surge

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Al Panza, 78, waters his yard in the Fairfield Village retirement community along 60th Avenue in Ocala. He and his wife Diane have lived there for 10 years, and he fears an influx of new residents would adversely affect local traffic. “You know they’re all going to have two cars, three cars,” he said. “It’s going to be very congested on this road.” (Heather Bushman/WUFT News)

The air in McPherson Complex Auditorium in Ocala, once stale with bureaucracy, surged with something much more urgent upon the introduction of Item 7.

Items 1-6 on the Marion County Commission planning and zoning agenda – ensnared in traps of technical jargon and dusted with mundane details – didn’t hold much interest, but Item 7, a proposal for a new luxury housing development, was different.

The huge audience sat up straighter. Commissioners cleared their throats. Presenters stacked their files. All were on edge as more change for Marion County loomed.

The commission insists the county must keep developing, as the population rate has tripled over the last half century. But residents fear the growth will erase the rural lands they call home.

Both sides are at a crossroads: Suspend the area in time or change with the growing demand.

“This is the main event,” Commission Chair Craig Curry said of Item 7 on the Nov. 15 agenda.

More than 150 people watched and listened as Calibrex, a development company from Canada, proposed building a 1,200-unit complex with single family homes and apartment buildings stretching from 52nd to 63rd Streets along 60th Avenue. Calibrex bought the vacant 121 acres for a combined $9 million between November 2021 and January, according to Marion County official records, and needed the commission to approve zoning amendments.

Mark Pavkovic, Calibrex’s vice president of development, said the complex will add ample housing options at affordable prices in a growing city. The goal of the development, he said, it to create a community that accommodates Marion’s population with a variety of housing styles.

Pavkovic told those at the meeting that the housing complex would be a welcome addition to Marion’s increasingly urban outlook.

“We think it’s a very high-end style,” he said. “It complements the area well.”

Around a dozen residents spoke against the proposal, citing disruption and destruction of their quiet lifestyles. During public comment, they demanded the commission deny the project, or at least propose more adjustments to soften the blow to the project’s rural neighbors.

Pam Bruno, 59, said having such a housing development so close to her three acres on 59th Street would trample upon her idyllic rural isolation.

“I don’t want to see all these people,” Bruno said. “I live on a farm because I don’t like people.”

The residents’ opposition failed to sway the commission. After extracting some accommodations from Calibrex to ease the impact to rural lands – including a new traffic signal to control the influx of cars to the area – it approved the project unanimously.

The Calibrex development will scatter house along about a mile of 60th Avenue and lie in an area that currently sees little development compared to the more metropolitan areas of Ocala. It will border properties that house horses and span more than 120 acres. (Courtesy/Marion County Commission)

The project is still in its planning stages, and the community likely will not see a groundbreaking until summer 2024, Pavkovic told WUFT News.

Attempts to interview the commissioners and/or the county spokespeople were unsuccessful despite multiple emails and calls to them and their offices.

Critics say the commission’s vote is all too familiar, especially in recent years. New developments seem to crop up every day, they say, encroaching upon landmark rural areas and horse farms and crawling toward property lines at distances too close for comfort.

Calibrex is just one project Marion residents have combated as the county’s population spikes. They have become commission meeting regulars, begging the elected officials to halt development and keep a farm county from losing itself to urban development.

Marion’s urban growth boundary encompasses only 12.5% of the county. Construction projects are encouraged to propose building there, where farmland protection guidelines and preservation measures don’t apply. (Courtesy/Marion County Commission)

Patricia Clapp, 75, an Ocala resident for 22 years, is among those feeling ignored.

“You don’t care about the people that’ve lived here for that long a time,” Clapp told the commissioners at the Nov. 15 meeting. “You’re doing all this development and not taking care of the people who live here already.”

Local government, Clapp said, should focus on bolstering existing resources, such as the Marion County Sheriff’s Department, to alleviate present problems for longtime residents. Instead, she said, they’re clearing the way for future occupants.

But commissioners say it isn’t that easy. Florida is seventh on World Population Review’s list of the fastest-growing states in the country, and Marion is no exception. To accommodate for the growth, the commission said it must allow development to take hold.

Increased housing is essential to Marion’s ability to handle the rush of incoming residents, commissioners said. Commissioner Carl Zalak cautioned, though, that projects like Calibrex’s should occur within the designated parameters for ideal growth.

Attempts by WUFT News to interview county commissioners and/or spokespeople to discuss the residents’ concerns were unsuccessful despite multiple emails and calls to them and their offices.

However, the commission decided during a special meeting last week to consider imposing a six-month pause on approving any new development proposals – a day after it rejected several major ones at a regularly scheduled meeting, according to the Ocala Star-Banner.

Saying it would discuss the matter at its annual strategic planning session in January, none of the commissioners indicated they wanted to impose a building moratorium or require that plans for any prior approved projects be halted. New Smyrna Beach, still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Ian, is considering a moratorium, according to The Daytona Beach News-Journal.

In any event, until the Marion County commission decides what to do next, where any new development should happen and how much of it should be allowed remains an open question.

How did it happen?

Marion County is in a precarious position. An estimated 190 people move in per week, according to the Ocala Chamber and Economic Partnership, and there is limited space to accommodate them. Though it spans 1,600 square miles – larger than the state of Rhode Island – the county finds itself cramped due to outside interest constantly on the uptick.

But the dilemma didn’t happen overnight. County competition between fast-paced industry and idyllic rural escapes has ruled local politics for decades.

A special report from the Ocala Star-Banner pinpoints the county’s origins in 1844, when settlers migrated to Florida to build on land made available by the federal Armed Occupation Act. The aftermath of the Second Seminole War, which saw Native Americans forced off their lands and to designated reservations out West, freed up parcels in north central Florida, and prospective residents traveled south to stake their claims on newly open territory.

When Interstate 75 barreled through Florida in the early 1960s, it brought buckets of tourists with it. Easy access and a unique attraction – a growing horse industry – guaranteed outsider interest. Articles from publications like The New York Times touted Ocala as the next big thing in horse competitions, and enthusiasts flocked accordingly.

Some stayed for longer than a visit. Residency steadily climbed after the 1960s, with population skyrocketing in the time since I-75 opened.

Busy Shires, the conservation director of a local preservation group Horse Farms Forever, attributed the population spike to the snowbirds. Northerners interested in the equine industry, she said, put roots down in Florida during the winters, and some never left.

“The movement grew bigger and bigger, and people started buying farms,” Shires said.

Kathy Dale, 71, presents a flyer opposing the Calibrex development. Dale went door to door ahead of a Marion County Commission meeting to rally her neighbors against the complex. “We went down 52nd Street and started putting them onto mailboxes,” she said. “We were down 80th Street, too.” (Heather Bushman/WUFT News)

A county at a crossroads

The local dilemma pits two top issues against each other: progression and preservation. With high traffic volumes and a heightened need for housing, residents agree that roadway improvements are essential, but they also want to preserve the value of their rural lands.

A survey from Horse Farms Forever reported almost 30% of residents designated “preservation of land and natural resources” as the most important issue facing the county. Traffic and population growth were right behind it at 21% and 19%. But the possibility of new infrastructure poses an interesting challenge — namely, finding a place to put it.

Only 200 square miles of Marion’s 1,600 are within an urban growth boundary, in which the land isn’t constrained from development under preservation guidelines or farmland protection. That’s just 12.5% of the area where new projects are most desirable, per county recommendations.

The approval of Calibrex’s 1,200 units came just two years after the announcement of 5,000 in the Calesa Township complex along 80th Avenue. In total, it adds to more than 50,000 residential units OK’d in the last five years, according to another Star Banner report.

Residents like Jack Johnson, 46, have seen the change from sleepy farm town to relative metropolis right before their eyes. Johnson moved to Ocala in the 1980s, and with the population inching toward 400,000, he said Marion’s infrastructure can’t handle the residential influx.

“It’s kind of getting out of control now,” he said.

Major roads always seem jammed, especially around rush hour. In Ocala, Johnson avoids State Road 200, otherwise known as College Road, whenever he can. But even the back roads he takes are starting to slow, and with more people coming in, the crowding is only going to get worse.

Marion has hosted several meetings and workshops with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to discuss mitigation efforts. A Nov. 14 summit organized by Horse Farms Forever pointed to several projects that would potentially alleviate traffic concerns.

Secretary Jared Perdue has said the state aims to focus on improving I-75 in the coming years. It’s currently the nation’s fourth most dangerous highway, according to accident data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and traffic can back it up for hours on end.

Improvements in Marion include widening highway lanes in high traffic areas and, notable for residents, constructing an additional interchange at 49th Street. With construction slated to begin in 2024, this would put another exit in the northern part of Ocala.

The state and county also have proposed changes to local roads, including widening 80th Avenue from a two- to four-lane road to ease traffic around the equestrian center.

“You don’t want to get lost in talking about what we need 20, 30 years down the road – when it needs a fix today,” Perdue said.

But residents like the Conways don’t want the roads changed, including 80th Avenue.

“It’s hard to imagine that ever turning into a four-lane divided road,” Vicki Conway said. “It’ll really change the character.”

Residents push back

For sure, many Marion County residents are fighting to keep their quiet lifestyle and rural escapes intact. Take, for example, FDOT’s bid to extend the Florida Turnpike.

When the state legislature passed the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance bill in 2019, the department launched into proposing projects to improve roads. The Northern Turnpike Extension, a project that would build upon one of four potential routes to extend the turnpike northwest, drummed up the most interest and, subsequently, indignation.

Two of the routes shot straight through Marion. Critics turned out in droves to urge the county commission to pass a “no build” resolution calling on FDOT to scrap the project.

Local governments in cities like Bronson, Williston and Inverness and counties like Levy and Citrus passed no-build resolutions during early extension talks. Marion, however, did not.

Laura Catlow, 65, of Levy County, helped lead a coalition of more than 10,000 rural residents aiming to stop the turnpike. Like Marion, Levy was in the path of a potential extension, and Catlow and her neighbors lobbied their commissioners to oppose its construction.

“I just put on my activist shoes,” she said. “Had to get involved, and I’m glad I did.”

Months of picketing, petitioning, protesting and piling on public comments at commission meetings paid off. FDOT shelved plans for the turnpike extension until a later date.

But Marion residents haven’t let their guard down. Projects like the northern extension and Suncoast Parkway, a turnpike extension from Tampa to Citrus County, incited a batch of hyper-vigilante citizens who keep a close eye on commission agendas to spot any development plans.

Word spreads fast in these watchdog groups, alerting residents like Mira Korber, 29, who owns a tutoring business. Initially, when earlier this year she bought her bought five acres on 59th Street just off 60th Avenue, the Calibrex project would have been about 50 feet away. She quickly joined the resistance, hoping to protect the space her four horses will graze.

Among the amendments the commission required of Calibrex was to alter the project so that it would be least 110 feet from the closest residential or commercial property.

Korber said that still wasn’t adequate. “I’m not going to be able to use my property with all the noise, dust, just general disruption,” she said.

When the commission approved the Calibrex development, Korber wasn’t surprised.

“They seemed to have their decision made before the meeting happened,” she said. “No matter what it is that the residents say, it doesn’t ever seem to change their mind.”

The frustration stems from a commission that, to some residents, approves projects with astounding leniency. They say the commission lacks discretion regarding development, greenlighting proposals when the county simply can’t handle them.

Some, like Brian Donnelly, are so incensed that they’ve taken matters into their own hands.

Donnelly, 67, grew tired of watching the commission catalyze what he considers unchecked growth, but he knew public comment wasn’t enough to change anything. So Donnelly ran as a write-in candidate for District 1 commissioner in the most recent general election.

His platform centered on limiting development. It included a push for higher impact fees, which require developers to make payments to offset the impacts of construction, and greater skepticism from the commission in debating potential projects.

He lost the election to Curry. But Donnelly said he’ll keep speaking at commission meetings and advocating for more regulated growth. More controlled development, he said, is the only way to preserve the natural space he’s called home for 13 years.

“Nobody is moving to Ocala for warehouses, convenience stores or fast-food joints,” he said. “They moved here to get away from it all.”

Nancy Haehn, 66, stands on 59th Street between the future Calibrex development and existing residences. Though she lives three miles away on 79th Place, Haehn’s been vocal about what she feels is unchecked growth throughout Ocala. “I just want to cry,” she said. “It used to be this quiet little neighborhood.” (Heather Bushman/WUFT News)

What’s next?

If the Bureau of Economic and Business Research’s highest estimates are correct, by 2050 Marion County will need to add 83,000 housing units for what will be 581,000 residents.

Earl Hahn, director of Marion County’s growth services department, told the commission in June that the area could handle such a population increase. The county’s Urban Growth Boundary Comprehensive Plan concludes Marion has ample space to accommodate its growing population.

The county’s 200-mile growth boundary has 55,000 acres, or almost 86 square miles, of undeveloped land within it, Hahn said. That space can hold more than 151,000 housing units, or enough for 363,000 people, he said.

But housing quantity isn’t the issue; it’s where to put it all, the director said. “That’s a totally different question from whether the densities and intensities are located in the right place,” he said. “That’s what we need to be focusing on.”

Residents fear development will continue to creep closer to the boundary’s edge.

Korber said she’ll keep lobbying the commission to stop the influx of growth in hopes that it will listen. If it doesn’t, she said it will prove “there’s no respect for anything that was there before” and that “there’s the assumption that it’s all there to be taken, and let’s take it and develop it.”

The commissioners say they are listening to resident outcry, even sympathizing. As county residents themselves, they say they want to preserve the rural lands as much as their neighbors.

But development is inevitable in what’s one of the nation’s fastest growing areas, said Curry, the commission’s chair. The commission must make informed choices on new projects out of necessity, he said, despite resident accusations that they approve on a whim.

But development is inevitable in what’s one of the nation’s fastest growing areas, said Curry, the commission’s chair. The commission must make informed choices on new projects out of necessity, he said, despite resident accusations that they approve on a whim.

Critics stressed this sentiment at the Nov. 15 planning and zoning meeting. However, after someone begged the commission to “save Marion County,” Curry had heard enough.

Commissioners aren’t ruining the county, the chair said, they’re trying to keep it afloat.

Development is detrimental in the eyes of rural residents, but with a population influx and a responsibility to all constituents, Curry said, the commission doesn’t have another choice.

“We’ve got to put these people somewhere,” he said.

Maybe so, but for her part, Bryant is among those not so sure.

“We have so much infrastructure that we are behind on,” she told her commission colleagues last week, according to the Ocala Star-Banner. “We have no idea where it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, how we’re going to fund it.”

About Heather Bushman

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

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