I have a map stamped in my head that says Plan A, Alternate Toll Road / North Turnpike Extension Corridor.
The snake winds north from Wildwood through acres and acres of homestead, historic ranch land, pine and hardwood forests, wetlands, traversing the Marjorie Carr Harris Cross Florida Greenways Corridor and trails, the catchment areas of the Withlacoochee River, and the Florida Aquatic Preserve known as the Rainbow River .
This is very bad news for our cherished Rainbow River, and all of these springs nourished wildlife, birds, and aquatic plants of the river. Nothing will be left unscathed by the toxic, mud-laden construction water runoff, noise, air, light and water pollution of a barrier corridor that winds through the Dunnellon region of southwest Marion County two miles northeast of the sources of the Rainbow River
The proposed six-lane turnpike, which I refer to as the “Asphalt Serpent”, is also being mapped to traverse the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, located a few miles east of Dunnellon on the south side of the CR 484 is the mighty Withlacoochee River.
Halpata Tastanaki is a vast drainage basin of 6,000 hectares of publicly owned land that is home to several unique ecosystems. This reservation represents the last holdout in Marion County that hopefully will never be a development disturbed target and you, the taxpayer, own it. Someday, visit what you own and see the “real Florida”: native prairie wonderland, ponds, riverside wetlands, and higher sand hill and scrub pine ecosystems. Wildlife is in abundance here; Turkeys, deer, foxes and otters. Waterfowl such as ibis, herons, herons and sand hill cranes depend on the clean water of the wetlands and ponds for their food. The Halpati Tastanaki Preserve extends east to SR 200 from the Dunnellon City Limits sign on the Withlacoochee River. Halpati Tastanaki can be reached via the Greenways Pruit Trail Head car park, just a few miles east of the Dunnillon city limits.
The bush jay lives only in Florida and is officially designated as an endangered species. Note that the Marion County’s flock of bush jays is right in the path of the proposed turnpike, according to Florida Audubon experts. The jays of the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve are sure to have devoured their unique sand hill habitat through the proposed “Plan A Turnpike Corridor”. The bush jays cannot be relocated as they are lifelong attached to their home area of the sand hill ecosystem of bush oaks and old sand dunes.
You may not care about the bush jay, but this rare bird is important to the hundreds of bird watchers from across the country who flock to Marion County to spot and photograph this rare, finely feathered friend. There is this very important mainstay of Marion County’s economy called “Ecotourism.”
Ecotourism adds millions of dollars to the Marion County’s economy each year and provides hundreds of job opportunities for our area residents. Our Marion County outdoor visitor experiences aren’t just about horses. RV campers, trail bikers, hikers, paddlers, tubers, fishing enthusiasts, bird watchers and nature photographers know that the Dunnellon region of southwest Marion County offers unique outdoor experiences all year round. Bring a barrier to this region and scrape off some of these activities. There is nothing like the roar of road traffic to destroy the serenity that both wildlife and humans seek.
Two related government agencies, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation, are aware of the damaging effects of major road construction on the environment in the Dunnellon area. In the proposals for M-CORE turnpike trails, there were several provisions that explicitly dealt with environmental issues such as the protection of our endangered freshwater sources and the associated catchment areas. (M-Cores press release from February 2020). Why are the managers of the current North Turnpike Extension Project ignoring these provisions?
DEP established the Pool Management Action Plan in 2015. The action plan for basin management states: “Storm water runoff from road construction sites and impermeable surfaces (asphalt) are important paths for toxic compounds to penetrate into the aquifers and the main basin systems of a region.” (From Rainbow Springs Park Management Plan 2021-2022, F-DEP Report). So how can FDOT’s “Plan A” path be taken into account at all? Who even let go of this snake?
There are several very active residential and commercial real estate developers here in Marion County who are licking the prospect of turning their rural investments into gold-filled jackpots in the southwestern Marion region. Commercial and residential real estate investors, brokers and bankers sit as directors of the Industrial Development Authority, a branch of the Marion County Commission.
Who is the “Registered Agent” for Marion County IDA? None other than Kevin Sheilley, the executive director of the Ocala Metro Chamber & Economic Partnership. Sheilley said he was delighted that the Marion County Commissioners voted three to two in favor not Send a letter to the FDOT asking for a construction ban on the proposed extension of the northern route through southwest Marion County.
Sheilley is well aware of Marion County’s intense desire to preserve what is left of the rural Marion, and has noted that consensus on public forums, only to recently do a 180-degree spin like a champ reining- Make horse. Sheilley’s position can now be summed up by saying that the boundary of the “dense development core” of Metro Ocala extends like a large rubber band into the southwest region of Dunnillon, for the benefit of the county and its people.
Do the current priorities of our district commissioners correspond to the interests of rural soil protection? Well, “yes,” you would answer if you were a multimillionaire or a billionaire like John Malone, who is $ 7 billion net worth, owner of Bridlewood Farm, or Charlotte Weber, net worth $ 1.4 billion, owner of 4,500 Acre Live Oak horse and cattle ranch or multimillionaire Larry Roberts, the builder of the World Equestrian Center, Roberts Quarter Horses, Roberts Investments. The Roberts Dynasty holdings currently total more than 5,500 acres in Marion’s world-class real estate holdings.
A multitude of magnificent horse farms and Marion’s upscale equestrian communities are located in the “Farmland Preservation Zone”, the absolutely “construction-free toll road region” of Marion County, which was founded only a few years ago by our members of the Marion County Commission. This action was very necessary to preserve Marion County’s image as the “Horse Capital of the World”, to preserve the rural farm area and the associated economy.
But south of the Farm Preservation Zone border, the answer right now is a resounding “No” to the urgent question, “So are Marion County Commissioners reflecting the interests of rural land conservation?”
To the south and southwest of the Farmland Preservation Area lie hundreds of acres of agricultural land in the form of small farms and public outdoor recreation areas that were acquired years ago to protect our local watersheds.
With the exception of District 2 Commissioner Kathy Bryant and Chairman of the Board Carl Zalak, the other commissioners appear ready to walk around the “snake” in the grass lightly. They argue that just standing by and letting FDOT do its thing will turn out well.
The three commissioners who are not behind a Marion County’s no-build resolution fail to understand that the board has been erased and FDOT has a brand new game plan with a team of new executive managers. The former M-CORES specifications, which included spring protection and the protection of state nature reserves, are history. This new team of FDOT turnpike corridor planners has not been user-friendly to the public and has proven reluctant to address the colossal, widespread public protest supporting the non-construction of the North Florida Turnpike Extension project.
The rural residential lots across the southern boundary of the protected Farm Preservation Zone are all 5 to 50 acres in size. In this area in the southwest of Marion, west of the SR 200, the toll road will be driven through. According to the Marion County Average Median Income Census Group Block map, the incomes of these families trapped in the snake path I call Corridor A / Proposed Toll Road averages $ 38,000 to $ 47,500 per year .
These are the middle-income people of Marion County. Many are retirees and live their dreams in the country. But most of the residents of this area with Dunnellon addresses work five or six days a week to provide medical services, work as salespeople, truck drivers, or local law enforcement officers. These are the people who pay the property tax, who maintain our vehicles, employees of the school system, employees of the county government, and so on.
These working class people live in the subdistricts, neighborhoods, and RV communities that are within and near the corridor of the planned northern barrier extension, Plan A, land tax paying rural residents would be a major travesty on a personal level.
If we do not speak out loud and clear now about the FDOT route through southwest Marion County, the effects will engulf our cherished rural way of life and our priceless natural terrestrial and aquatic resources of the region.
Say “no building” and say it aloud to our Marion County Commissioners and State Representatives and FDOT.
Marion County commissioners could and should rewrite the letter they wrote to the FDOT on December 21st to represent what really goes on in the minds and hearts of the majority of Marion County’s residents. This mindset is without a doubt “no build”. Stop the suggested ruins roads.
Jan Cubbage is a member of Dunnellon City Council.