Have you wondered what Marion County will look like in 50 years? What about the Farmland Preservation Area? Will it still have the same miles and miles of four board fences and the rolling hills of horse farms that create the character and culture of Marion County?
The good news is that there is a Plan to help protect farms and the Farmland Preservation Area. The plan to manage growth is codified in Marion County’s Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code. These two documents, and how they are implemented or changed, will determine the future of Marion County.
The Comprehensive Plan – Say What, Say Why?
The County’s Comprehensive Plan is similar to a company’s Mission Statement in that it lays out Goals, Objectives, and Policies to provide a vision for sustainable urban, suburban, and rural growth that supports a transportation network, a variety of land uses, natural and agricultural resources, and open space.
For example, the goals to help preserve the rural and equestrian character for the nearly 200,000-acre Farmland Preservation Area are included in Objective 3.3 of the Comprehensive Plan and the Farmland Preservation Area boundary is designated on the Future Land Use Map.
Click HERE for the Future Land Use Map. The Farmland Preservation Area is in the northwest and outlined with a green and black dotted line. The Urban Growth Boundary is in red. The two lines merge on the northwest section of the Urban Growth Boundary.
Marion County Comprehensive Plan Objective 3.3: The Farmland Preservation Area is intended to encourage preservation of agriculture as a viable use of lands and an asset of Marion County’s economy and to protect the rural character of the area. Planning principles within this area are designed to protect significant natural resources, including prime farmland and locally important soils as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture and unique karst geology that provides high recharge to the Florida Aquifer, a key source of freshwater for central Florida. The County establishes this area as critical to the enhancement and preservation of its designation as the Horse Capital of the World.
What About Zoning?
The Zoning regulations are found in the Land Development Code, which is a separate document with specific guidelines to implement the Goals, Objectives, and Policies of the Comprehensive Plan.
Zoning regulates development through land use classifications and specifies the areas in which residential, industrial, recreational or commercial activities may take place. The Land Development Code was adopted through a series of ordinances by the County Commission, which means that the regulations cannot be changed or waived, except by a further vote of the County Commission.
Ten Ways to Say Exception!
WITHIN THE COMPREHENSIVE PLAN AND LAND DEVELOPMENT CODE THERE ARE 10 EXCEPTIONS TO DIVIDE LAND.
Horse Farms Forever® (HFF) monitors all applications to divide land using the exceptions, especially the most commonly used exception in the Farmland Preservation area, the Agricultural Lot Split.
The agricultural lot split exception allows landowners to subdivide rural land into 10-acre or larger lots without having to plat the land into a subdivision. The exception has some rules, including a maximum limit of 10 lots per parcel division. While nearly all applications using the agricultural lot split exception adhered to the 10-lot limit, HFF discovered several applications that sought a waiver from the County’s Development Review Committee to exceed this 10-lot limitation.
At the May of 2023 Development Review Committee meeting, HFF challenged the statutory authority of the committee to waive any provision of the LDC by approving an application to allow 20-lots on one parcel using the agricultural lot split exception. While the Committee heard our testimony and accepted our objection letter, they proceeded to approve the waiver and send the application to the Board of County Commissioners for final approval.
At the June of 2023 Board of County Commissioner meeting, the application with the waiver was part of the Consent Agenda and scheduled for fast-track approval. HFF again challenged the authority of the DRC to waive a provision of the LDC and presented the County Attorney Guy Minter with a position paper from our land use attorney, Matthew Brockway. After a lengthy debate and a statement from Mr. Minter that while he thought our position was most likely correct, he needed more time to review the matter, the Commissioners tabled the application and asked the County Attorney to report back on our challenge at the next commission meeting.
At the July of 2023 Board of County Commissioners meeting, HFF land use attorney, Matthew Brockway, again challenged the legal authority of the Development Review Committee to waive any requirement of the Land Development Code, especially the limits related to the agricultural lot split exception. As a result of this challenge, the Commission chose to halt any future use of the agricultural lot split exception until this section of the Land Development Code could be reviewed and the practice of waivers by the Development Review Committee scrutinized.
“We do want to thank you, and Horse Farms Forever,” said Craig Curry, County Commission Chairman to HFF attorney Matthew Brockway at the July 18 Commission meeting. “You have become a good partner and help put an extra set of eyes on things and have been very helpful in a number of areas. We work very closely with you to protect the Farmland Preservation Area and we are appreciative of your time.”
In regards to the Agricultural Lot Split exception, Horse Farms Forever has not taken any position on the agricultural lot split exception and has no issue with the current language. As part of our watchdog efforts, we did respectfully challenge the statutory authority of the Design Review Committee to waive any portion of the Land Development Code, which is created by ordinance.
It is the vision and mission of Horse Farms Forever to inspire conservation of horse farms through education, awareness and idea exchange so as to preserve natural pasture land focusing on horses and their habitats, to protect soil and water on which they depend, and minimize land use conflicts in Marion County, Florida.
We are watchful of government and others to preserve and protect horse farms and farmland for future generations – especially in the Farmland Preservation Area. We are neither anti-growth nor anti-development; we encourage urban growth to remain inside the Urban Growth Boundary.
Horse Farms Forever® is a Florida not-for-profit corporation registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as a charitable organization and approved as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation by the Internal Revenue Service. Horse Farms Forever® does not have a political mission. Our status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization does not allow us to participate or intervene in political activities. The organization will neither advocate on behalf of political candidates nor advocate for the passage of legislation.