You can’t live with them. And you can’t live without them.
That was the message, mixed as it was, that came out of Horse Farms Forever’s annual “Conversation About Conservation” last month, when Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue addressed the group of horse farm owners and business leaders regarding the future of major highway construction through Marion County.
Twice in the past decade proposals by FDOT to build four-lane toll roads through western Marion County have mobilized HFF and others because of the threat they would pose to our community’s equine in- dustry, not to mention our iconic springs.
First, in 2018 FDOT proposed building the so-called Coastal Connector right through some of Marion County’s best- known horse farms. That led to an outcry by local residents and the creation of Horse Farms Forever.
Then a couple of years ago, FDOT proposed running what it calls the Northern Turnpike Extension from the Florida Turnpike’s termination at Wildwood northwest through southwest Marion County. The result was the emergence of the “No Build” movement and redoubling of HFF’s efforts to protect Marion County’s equine industry, especially its Farmland Preservation Area, from the encroachment of development. Because we all known if they build it, a road that is, people will come and come and come.
Perdue, a native of the Florida Panhandle, came to assuage the horse farm owners, although, frankly, the message was less than reassuring.
“I actually love the idea of horse farms and preservation,” he said.
Despite saying FDOT “believes in relationships” and seeks to foster “trust, loyalty, commitment and respect” with the citizenry it impacts, Perdue fell short of declaring that any new highways would bypass Marion County.
“How do we plan and still preserve the quality of life we all know?” he asked.
He noted that 60 percent of Florida’s explosive growth is occurring in 10 of the state’s 67 counties. Two of those 10 counties are Marion’s neighbors to the south, Lake and Sumter. Hence, more highways are needed in the region.
He did say that FDOT is making “an absolute priority”– finally – of widening Interstate 75 by two lanes from State Road 44 in Wildwood to County Road 326 north of Ocala. The project has been dubbed “I-75 Forward.”
Yet, he told the crowd FDOT is still looking at extending the turnpike.
Perdue was followed to the podium by Tracy Straub, Marion County assistant county administrator for public works and growth services. Straub, who was quick to assure the gathering that the county had no road work planned in the Farmland Preservation Area, noted that the county is currently issuing 5,000 residential building permits a year and that growth will inevitably demand new and bigger roads.
She noted that almost half of the county is either national forest land or agricultural properties, including the Farmland Preservation Area in the northwest quadrant of the county, which accounts for 19 percent of the county.
“We continue to thrive as a natural gem,” Straub said.
Straub, a fifth-generation Marion Countian, said the county will need $4 billion worth of road work between now and 2045. That’s a lot of road work.
Thank goodness for Horse Farms Forever. They have been vigilant in tracking new development in the county, monitoring every development permit request submitted to the county. The group actually got an amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan to enhance protection of the 193,000 acres that make up the Farmland Preservation Area and, as HFF Director of Communications Michelle Grald put it, Marion County’s “unique global identity and brand.”
People are coming to Florida and Marion County at a dizzying rate. Roads will be needed to move them and us around. But the horse industry, while being a $2 billion economic driver in our community, is also our modern-day heritage that sets our community apart from virtually anywhere else. Preservation is not an option, it is essential.
While Perdue’s words were less than reassuring, HFF’s efforts give hope.