Growth can’t continue down well-worn path

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By Lee Helscel

Is it a surprise to anyone in the Corridor that state officials say the county’s land use plan is up to its rooftops in disarray? The community isn’t crowded – yet. If it weren’t for the economic slowdown, for which we saw the roadside signs in 2007, the number in rooftops would be increasingly more uncomfortable by now.

But it wasn’t until last fall that the county officials were starting to get the idea. That happened at a meeting with Department of Community Affairs representatives and the department’s head, Tom Pelham. DCA has final say when it comes to land use requests, as county comprehensive plans are supposed to agree with the state comprehensive land use plan, to manage growth.

Over the past few years, Marion County has had a lot of land use amendments denied by DCA, and the Board of County Commissioners has been wondering why. The answers that recently came to town are likely to muddy the development waters.

When developers ask to amend the use of a piece of property it is almost always to build more houses or create more intense use than “originally” allowed. DCA has said that Marion County has already committed as much growth as it needs for a while and may not approve any more requests for higher usage – at least for a few years.

In the meantime, it has been advised that the Commission look at consolidating the county’s growth. It’s too spread out – creating sprawl.

In a way, land developers are being told to back off building to attract retirement populations. The direction should be shifted to creating urban centers for working class communities. And Marion isn’t the only county facing a growth crossroads.

Remember that Charlie Crist is the “green governor,” and down-the-road-apiece communities that create a lot of cars, and their emissions, to connect those populations to a few urban centers for jobs and services are now a state concern. The Sunshine State still wants to be attractive to retirees, but a new emphasis is being placed on planning for more diverse populations and industry that co-exist close together.

So the news isn’t all bad. Land developers who already have platted parcels can follow through with some their plans – as quickly as any economic recovery allows. They aren’t faced with losing their shirts – unless we all do – and there is time to shift direction.

But what’s going to come first – the chicken or the egg before that road can be crossed? Do you buy up land in Ocala or some other town in the county and hope manufacturers will come? Who is going to attract and bring businesses that produce goods to the area?

A lot of the county’s planning for transportation corridors, industrial centers and land conservation has been done and are good starting points. But the Board can’t approve more roads, busses, water treatment plants, and build parks without money – something the tax base hasn’t allowed for as quickly as growth has demanded.

Attracting large-scale manufacturers is an enigmatic challenge. Because they create a lot of jobs, many of them want sizeable property tax concessions, making them a revenue-generating wash. The county is back to relying on homeowner ad valorem taxes – hopefully from those thousands of new employees.

Until “big business” moves in, it’s difficult to cultivate small businesses that can vend to them. Those are the companies, or the industrial complexes that house them, that are needed to carry the burden of commercial property tax.

The Board has been aware of its dilemma for some time and was given credit for the studies and planning it has done. But DCA has drawn a new path into the county’s maze of growth.

One of the suggested changes is to trade land use rights out in the country for development in areas that are already high density. That may be a tough move. Getting landowners to surrender the right to build on investment property may take a lot of incentive or could be an expensive battle to win.

In spite of all the negatives, the Commission was told it had positive vision. Now all it needs is a good compass and money to find its way out of this labyrinth.