As published in the Ocala Star Banner on April 16, 2022:
April is Farmland Preservation Month in Marion County. In honor of this important designation by the Marion County Commission, Horse Farms Forever is pleased to present the results of the recently conducted Quality of Life Survey in Marion County.
The Survey results concluded that residents feel strongly about protecting Marion County’s rural charm and beauty by preserving farmland and natural resources. Population growth, new development, roads, access to emergency services, and countywide internet service were also key issues of concern. The Survey was organized by Horse Farms Forever and supported by five sponsors including the Ocala Metro Chamber and Economic Partnership (Ocala CEP), College of Central Florida, Ocala Horse Properties, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association (FTBOA), and the Hotel Design Group. The Matrix Group, an independent research firm, conducted the Survey in July 2021.
A representative sampling was mailed to approximately 15,000 residents and over 1,200 households responded. The demographics covered a broad spectrum of zip codes, education levels, and age groups. Nearly 60 percent were urban residents and about half were female.
“This is a great time to understand the community’s perspective to learn how best to plan and manage growth for the benefit of all in the near and distant future,” said Dr. Jennifer Fryns, Associate VP of Career and Professional Programs at the College of Central Florida about the Survey questionnaire.
The questions for the Survey covered a broad range of topics including growth, economic development, education, traffic, housing, tourism, and farmland preservation. Even with the broad range of Survey questions, it may come as no surprise that residents ranked the preservation of land and natural resources as the most important issue facing Marion County. The second most important issue was transportation and traffic, third was population growth, fourth was housing availability and affordability, fifth was economic development, sixth was employment opportunities. Other issues included education, internet access, and homelessness.
Over 90% of the respondents agreed with the statement:
Marion County’s Farmland Preservation Area is home to some of the richest soils and pristine fresh water aquifers in the world and that it is critical to maintain its resources to ensure that the community’s legacy as the Horse Capital of the World® remain for future generations.
In addition, 86% of respondents also supported comprehensive planning at the county level that both protects agricultural lands and enhances urban areas. The Survey is an important step in defining the issues facing Marion County.
“We can speculate as to what people think. We can talk to our friends and acquaintances, but we likely will only hear what we already know, so it can risk becoming an echo chamber,” said Ocala Metro CEP President Kevin Sheilley about the Survey questionnaire. “A survey gives a chance to get input and feedback from a broad spectrum of our community.”
Over the next 20 years, Marion County’s population is predicted to increase by 150,000 new residents to reach over 500,000 people, according to the US Census Bureau. This rapid growth has brought the topic of the preservation of land and natural resources to the forefront.
“Ocala is incredibly unique in that it is growing on two different tracks. On one hand, we are adding diverse industry, housing and jobs – classic urban growth. But also, we have one of the largest regional farmland preservation areas in the country and a thriving equine industry dependent on those farms,” said Matt Varney, Broker with Ocala Horse Properties about the Survey questionnaire. “The survey will show the importance of both of these growth directions, and inspire our leaders to plan accordingly.”
The objective of the Survey was to gather information about how residents feel about their overall quality of life and vision for the community’s future. The results also have the potential to guide planning and policy decisions at the county level. Together with our partners and stakeholders, Horse Farms Forever® hopes to inspire positive and lasting change in terms of farmland preservation to help protect the open spaces and beautiful places that make Marion County so special.
The mission of Horse Farms Forever is 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. Horse Farms Forever is located in Ocala, FL. www.horsefarmsforever.com
The Quality of Life Survey was conducted by The Matrix Group, an independent insights and consulting firm based in Lexington, Kentucky. The QOL Survey was mailed to 15,000 households, which is considered a representative sampling of the estimated 135,000 households in Marion County.
We work hard to keep you informed, and to represent our members' interests in preserving our horse farms, farmland and the unique character and culture of Marion County's 193,000 acre Farmland Preservation Area.
Join the herd. Every voice matters.