Busy Shires Byerly: Creating a vision for Marion County’s horse country

Margarita Urtubey October 22, 2018 No Comments

In 20 years, what will the landscape of Marion County look like? Will historic horse farms and the picturesque countryside still provide the beautiful views we enjoy today? Will the equine and agricultural industries still be thriving economic engines that contribute billions of dollars annually to our local economy? Will Ocala/Marion County still be known as the Horse Capital of the World?

The Florida 2030 Report projects that the population of Marion County would reach 500,000 by 2040; that’s an increase of nearly 150,000 residents over the next 20 years. Is our community ready for this growth and the impacts it will have on our quality of life here in Marion County?

There is a Farmland Preservation Area in Marion County, but about 2,000 acres of the Farmland Preservation Area has recently been lost to urban uses.

Marion County’s distinctive and rare mineral-rich soils, which are primarily located in the Farmland Preservation Area, provide optimal nutrition for the bones of growing horses. This soil has made Marion County one of the top Thoroughbred breeding areas in the world. Once it’s developed, it’s gone forever.

While growth and development are inevitable, how do we as a community effectively plan our future growth in a way that balances development with retaining a quality of life that is uniquely Marion County?

What have other communities across the United States done to protect their agricultural lands and rural economy while facing similar growth and development challenges and can Marion County benefit from incorporating some of these same planning principles?

Over the past year, the Horse Country Protection Program brought together a diverse committee of about 40 stakeholders and decision-makers through a series of forums called the Visioning the Future of Marion County’s Farmland.

At the forums, two nationally recognized land conservation organizations, the Equine Land Conservation Resource and the American Farmland Trust, led a discussion with community leaders on how to balance growth while protecting Marion County’s rural economy, agricultural lands and community brand. The consensus of the group was to move forward with developing a Rural Land Management Plan for the future of agriculture in Marion County.

A Rural Land Management Plan is a guiding document for managing rural lands that works together with comprehensive planning.

Marion County Commissioners will hold a public workshop to learn more about Rural Land Management Planning and how other communities have addressed similar growth challenges. The workshop will be held on Thursday, Oct. 25, from 2-4 p.m. All residents are invited and encouraged to attend.

After the workshop should the commissioners decide to move forward with developing a Rural Land Management Plan, it will include input from community leaders, landowners and residents, as we work together to create a long-range plan for the future of Marion County’s horse farms and agricultural lands.

— Busy Shires Byerly is program manager for the Horse Country Protection Program. She lives in Gainesville. Her email ishorsecountryprotectionprogram@gmail.com.