- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

OCALA, Fla. (AP) - It’s difficult to think of a phrase more detested in civic matters than “urban sprawl.” The words call to mind densely packed homes creeping their way onto land that should rightfully be preserved as rural. The result is a disrupted landscape that appears both unattractive and unplanned.

No one wants urban sprawl. But if the definition of, and distaste for, the practice are agreed upon, the actual application is not. What one person considers sprawl another might consider the natural and even desired progression of growth along the urban fringes.

A disagreement along these lines is raging at fever pitch these days in a part of Marion County that is less than a mile west of the Ocala city limits. The gentlemen (and lady) farmers, as they consider themselves, who live north of State Road 40 and west of Northwest 80th Avenue are enraged that a large land owner seeks permission to put medium density (up to four homes per acre) development on open fields where cattle now graze.

Much of the surrounding land is vacant, owned in large tracts, or populated by residents who live on three-, five- or even 10-acre lots. The people on these hamlets keep a few horses, take trail rides, and enjoy beautiful sunsets.

“To me, these (proposed) changes don’t fit with what you see out there now,” one of those residents, Bruce McCown, told the County Commission last month during a long and testy hearing on the matter.

But Donna Wormser sees something else out there now. The land owner who seeks to change her land-use designation sees central utilities available for hookup. She sees roads – newly improved State Road 40 West and sleek 80th Avenue – that have room for more traffic. She sees a market for people who want to build a single-family home and enjoy a piece of the country.

“We feel like this does fit within the region,” engineer David Tillman, who represents Wormser, told the County Commission. “It will do well out on State Road 40.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously recommended that the County Commission deny the requested land-use change. But the County Commission, so far, has allowed the request to live. Last month the county agreed to send the packet up to Tallahassee so that state agencies can review it and make comments. So far, no agency has raised a red flag.

This sets up a July 19 showdown between Wormser and, it seems, almost all of her neighbors. That is when the County Commission is expected to take its final vote.

To opponents, drawing a line in the sand is imperative. Otherwise, their tranquil spot eventually will look just like every other place, albeit with a few more trees. Their fight is similar to ones fought throughout Marion County as growth – or proposed growth – has spread southwest along the State Road 200 corridor, north toward Irvine, and northwest off U.S. 27.

The opponents recognize that groups like theirs have failed before. They have mobilized, circulated petitions, and written letters to the county, to the editor, to whomever might lend them an ear.

“Please don’t ruin our area and our equine lifestyle,” reads one such letter, which Dale Kennedy sent to the Star-Banner. “There are hundreds and hundreds of small lots platted and ready to go in Northwest Ocala but buyers aren’t lining up.”

The latter point is important, since the county’s comprehensive plan does take market factors into account. The opponents point to ample lots in Golden Ocala, Trilogy, and elsewhere.

The comprehensive plan also puts a premium on protecting natural and historical resources. One opponent of the land-use change, Michelle Sivilich, is assistant director at Gulf Archaeology Research Institute and also lives in the affected area. She points out that there are three known archaeological sites in that vicinity.

Tillman, the engineer who represents land owner Wormser, told the county that the area would be studied. But he also noted that no project of his has ever been halted because of these kinds of historical issues.

Brent Barrett was among those who addressed the County Commission. “At some point we might not have room to keep our horses,” he said. “But we still have plenty of places for people to build their homes. I urge you, please let us keep Marion County what it is: Horse Capital of the World.”

The opponents sound that point over and over. Sure, Marion is known as a place where champion thoroughbreds are broken and trained. But for every one of those horses there are many others, of all different breeds.

“I moved out here because of the open land,” said Sara Hauenstein, an opponent of the land-use change and lover of the equine-centric feel of her new hometown.

The western boundary for the land in question is 100th Avenue. A ride along that well-worn road shows many small and medium-sized farms, each one representing someone’s livelihood and dream.

If the county approves the Wormser request, “I think you’re going to end up driving away the backbone of Marion County, which is the small farms, the small horse farms,” attorney David MacKay told the County Commission.

Three clients hired MacKay to oppose the proposed land-use plan. One of them is Charlotte Weber at Live Oak Stud, which is on the south side of State Road 40.

With powerful allies like that you might think the opponents would have grounds for confidence. But they worry about developers in general, and this one in particular, having outsized sway over the commissioners.

Tillman argues that the plan, on its merits, is worth approving. He told the County Commission it’s better to have people live in a properly developed area with central utilities instead of in older, unregulated subdivisions that are still on well and septic.

As for sprawl concerns, he notes that there are residential pockets, albeit older ones, that exist to the west and to the east of his client’s property. Plans like Wormser’s, he argues, actually are ideal for land that is on the edge of the previously defined Urban Growth Boundary.

On this point Wormser gets support from county staff, which recommended approval for changing the land-use designation from rural land and low residential to low and medium residential.

Staffers note that development of this site would increase general housing opportunities in the area, which is important, since Golden Ocala is high end and Trilogy is partially age restricted. Such general residential growth is desirable since both the county and the City of Ocala are trying to harness the economic development potential of the nearby Ocala Airport Commerce Center and Ocala/Marion County Commerce Park, staff notes.

That analysis doesn’t do much for Jackie Miller, who moved to northwest Marion about 20 years ago, a refugee from sprawl-spoiled Palm Beach County. She has witnessed the growth of the State Road 200 corridor.

I know what happens when one farmer sells out, Miller told the County Commission last month. I know what happens to the rest of them.

“And I just know,” she said, “it’s going to go downhill.”

Colleen Stringer looks out her back window every day and sees the Wormser property. It’s just beyond the bridle path that so many horses trod along each day.

“We’ll be moving again if this (land-use change) goes through,” she promised.

___

Information from: Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner, http://www.starbanner.com/

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