Commission agrees to softer ban on future toll roads

marionjanwhitey In: Commission agrees to softer ban on future toll roads | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
Suwannee St. Johns Sierra Club president Whitey Markle approaches the podium to speak, after waiting many hours.

The following article gives a good account of what happened at this meeting, but there is more to the story.  Marion County in the past has been famous for its open-arms welcome to developers, hence we have Top of the World, the Villages, Hwy 200 and much more.  And the accompanying congestion and pollution.

The current commission is not that way.  Yesterday, Jan. 15, 2019, we saw Marion County working hard to plan for its future land use (FLU) with the protection of the environment well in mind.

marionjancrowd In: Commission agrees to softer ban on future toll roads | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
All seats were taken and late-comers had to wait in the lobby, no standing in the room was allowed.

The social media for the environmentalists had deemed this an issue of the new toll road or expressway crossing rural horse country with its ensuing  development of gas stations, hotels and fast food facilities.  Chairwoman Michelle Stone made it clear from the beginning that a new road was not the issue, causing some confusion among the huge crowd which spilled out into the lobby.

marionjanmmj In: Commission agrees to softer ban on future toll roads | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson and Janet Barrow await their turn to speak. These two are a powerful force in advocacy.

The crowd, however,  both the environmentalists and the developers,  definitely made it an issue of roads as well as springs, the aquifer and preservation of rural land.  The commissioners  in Marion County see the distinction between rural land and rural land that has a city set down inside it, which constitutes land use inconsistent with the current status, not in the public interest.  Interesting, because this is a point some compromised county commissioners, zoning planners, and judges simply cannot fathom.

OSFR was present and two members spoke to the issues, as these county FLU topics  are addressed universally, and what happens in Marion County does not stay there, but spreads outward with a blurring of borders.   We recently witnessed this process carried out with wisdom and courage and a true sense of constituent representation in Union and DeSoto counties.  We have seen the failure of the same process in Manatee and Hardee counties and developing in this manner in Bradford.

Read the original article here in the Ocala Star Banner.

marionjandinner In: Commission agrees to softer ban on future toll roads | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
Dinner and relaxation after the long meeting. In addition to Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson here in the front is Maxine Conner of Homosassa, another tireless worker for the environment, along with Janet Barrow.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-

By Carlos E. Medina

Posted Jan 15, 2019 at 8:45 PM Updated Jan 15, 2019 at 8:45 PM

An outright ban in the county’s comprehensive plan could keep local officials from negotiating with the state.

The Marion County Commission agreed to send its latest plans governing future growth to the state on Tuesday, but not before horse farm advocates, environmentalists and developers all had their say.

In a nearly four-hour meeting, dozens of people, mostly those wanting the county to say no to future toll roads through the western half of the county, made their case before the commission.

Developers felt the county should not hamstring itself with an outright ban on toll roads or expressways. Horse farm advocates wanted stronger measures to protect the county’s Farmland Preservation Area. And environmentalists wanted sensitive bird and wetland areas in the southwest part of the county protected.

In the end, no one got everything they wanted, but everyone got something.

Several developers, including Ken Colen of On Top of the World, felt a flat ban on future toll roads was a mistake.

“There needs to be a quality transportation network through this county,” Colen said.

Matt Brockway, an attorney representing the local advocacy group Horse Farms Forever, said the prohibition was the only way to protect the area’s storied horse farms.

“This is not a trivial issue. Over a billion dollars of local economic impact and over 19,000 equine industry jobs could potentially be at risk,” Brockway said.

But it was the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership that figuratively split the baby.

Kevin Sheilley, president and CEO of the agency charged with improving economic prosperity in the area, suggested an amendment to the outright ban on future toll roads.

The change would give the county more wiggle room by prohibiting a toll road or an expressway that “negatively impacts vital farmlands or key environmental areas or that does not utilize existing rights of way where possible.”

“This ensures that the county has a seat at the table from the very beginning,” Sheilley said.

Comprehensive plans do not automatically stop the state from building roads and an outright ban could keep the county from arguing for different routes. The commission agreed to include the amendment in the updates sent to the state for its review.

The draft comprehensive plan updates also called for a vote by a supermajority of commissioners to change the rules related to the Farmland Preservation Area. Commissioners all balked at the measure, arguing that no other county decision, including raising taxes, requires a supermajority.

Commissioner David Moore pointed out that nothing would stop a future commission from changing the supermajority measure through a simple majority vote.

Commissioner Kathy Bryant wanted to include language protecting the southwest portion of the county, which includes Dunnellon. The area is home to a number of sensitive bird nesting areas and habitats. But fellow Commissioner Carl Zalak argued that the state already has strong protections for those areas.

“If you go through a wetland, if you go through any other sensitive area, the state is going to put you through the wringer before they give you a permit. That’s why we didn’t expand beyond the farmland preservation,” said County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes.

The debate to prohibit future toll roads came after the Florida Department of Transportation last April unveiled proposed routes for a toll road that would cut through Dunnellon and across farmland in northwest Marion County. That land is some of the best in the world for raising horses.

The Coastal Connector project, which hoped to link Tampa and Jacksonville through a limited-access toll road, faced such intense opposition that the state eventually dropped the proposal.

The comprehensive plan updates now go to the state, which will review them and make its suggestions before the county votes on the final version. The process can take at least another six months.

Contact Carlos Medina at 867-4157 or

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