Noel Hickey made a good living for himself breeding and training horses on the 320 acre farm in Marion County, Florida that he bought in 1969. The parcel is at the gateway to local horse country. Hickey currently has 45 horses being trained on his Irish Acres Farm. But after using this land for more than three decades as a horse farm, now Hickey wants to sell it to Wal-Mart for a 1.2 million square foot distribution center. When his neighbors, including other horse farmers, reacted with horror to his project, Hickey told the Star Benner newspaper he didn’t expect such a fuss. “I certainly didn’t,” he said. “I thought people would mind their own business.” But a Wal-Mart distribution center, which is 5 times larger than their supercenter, and generates constant heavy truck traffic, was a business hard to ignore. The Hickeys were “sworn to secrecy” not to tell their neighbors which company wanted to buy their property. “Even our best friends didn’t know.” But once the word leaked out, even friends were upset. “We don’t want that kind of urban sprawl in Marion County,” explained Laureen Ford, president of Meadlowlands, a horse-farm community 3 miles north of the Wal-Mart site. “Other farms are going to fall,” she predicted. A group called Marion County Citizens for Responsible Growth has formed to bump this Wal-Mart project off the track. The Hickeys insist that a 27 acre building will “keep the land beautiful”. “It’s not going to be all concrete, all building,” wife Bobby Hickey told the Star Banner. But Wal-Mart terms for the county to meet were very concrete: the world’s largest retailer wants Marion County taxpayers to ante up $2 million in tax-funded corporate welfare to build in the county. Wal-Mart wants County taxpayers to provide them with a wastewater treatment plant on the site, plus road improvements along 3 roads. Installing a well and a small wastewater treatment plant would cost taxpayers about $1 million, and the roadwork about the same. In early March, the Marion County Commissioners voted 3-2 to send a letter to Wal-Mart supporting the deal, and accepting the planned location — but they also urged the company to find another location. The county Economic Development Council has rattled cages for Wal-Mart, by suggesting the big company could take its marbles elsewhere “if it becomes a contentious situation.” But Wal-Mart has complicated matters by trying to get the county to expedite its distribution center plan in three locations. A second site is along the same road as Irish Acres, and the third parcel is at the intersection of interstate 75 and County Road 484. County Commissioners are clearly anxious to approve this project, which the Board Chairman said was a ‘clean’ business that wouldn’t have any negative impact on the environment. But local residents say the talk of other sites and moving to other counties is just a “blackmail threat”. According to Laureen Ford, Wal-Mart is saying: ‘You let us despoil another rural area of Marion County, or else.” Residents charge the Commission acted improperly by sending a letter of support for the project before any fact finding on the project was conducted, and absent any public hearing. The County says their letter did not constitute final approval for the plan. They say at least 5 public hearings will be held, and the process could take eight months or longer. A second grassroots group has formed called the Northwest Marion County Concerned Citizens to oppose the second location along County Road 326. Opposition to Wal-Mart in Marion County seems to be as common these days as horse droppings.
My correspondents in Marion County tell me that both locations along 326 are zoned agricultural. This means their is no mandate on the County to rezone the land. They must find that this project is compatible with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, and with their zoning code. Citizens point out that this huge development will change the character of the rural horse farm community forever, and raises serious traffic, safety, and environmental concerns. For more information about Wal-Mart distribution center battles, search this database using the word “distribution.” To contact residents in Marion County: [email protected]