Ocala Farm Owners Wary of Development Plan

A proposed Wal-Mart distribution center that would mean additional jobs for Marion County, Fla., continues to be a source of concern for many area farm owners.

The two primary sites under consideration by Wal-Mart for a 27-acre warehouse are Noel Hickey's Irish Acres off of U.S. 441, and a 262-acre parcel owned by Joan Tamburo located on County Road 326. Both sites offer access to major thoroughfares, but a number of property owners believe the retail giant's plans would adversely impact agriculturally zoned areas and the state's $6.5-billion horse industry.

Several farm owners said the development would alter the character of Marion County and its agrarian landscape, and perhaps lead to further commercial development. Others believe it would create infrastructure and traffic problems.

"If the proposed warehouse is built on the site (off County Road 326), it will open the floodgates to one of the county's major horse areas and the community to increased traffic," said Gail Stern of Stern de Rosa Farm. "The proposed zoning use isn't compatible with the residential and agriculturally zoned areas. There has to be some balance."

Irish Acres had initially been considered by Wal-Mart as the primary site for the proposed warehouse.

"Irish Acres is what's considered a rural activity center, and 40 acres of Irish Acres has already been zoned for high-density commercial use," Ocala-based realtor Clay Albright said. "It's a 300-acre parcel of property that's self-contained. If Wal-Mart builds a distribution center, it would need to stay in a peripheral area."

Marion County commissioner Steve Henning said Wal-Mart has submitted applications for "fast-track permitting" from the state for the project.

Marion County now has about 600 Thoroughbred farms, with more farms for other breeds. Bill Roberts of Hummingbird Arabian Farm contends the zoning in the area of County Road 326 shouldn't be altered.

"The county commissioners and their predecessors spent years setting up the plan," Roberts said.