Horse Farms Forever: Equestrians Unite to Save Ocala Horse Farms

Photo by Matt Varney, courtesy of Horse Farms Forever.

In 2018, word of a frightening new proposal slid across the proverbial desk at the Ocala Horse Properties office: the Coastal Connector toll road. The proposed plan meant that two interstates would cut through the heart of Ocala horse country, not only dividing precious farmland, but also damaging Marion County’s Farmland Preservation Area. Invigorated by the thought of the “Horse Capital of the World” suddenly becoming a lot less horse-friendly, the Marion County community, led by Ocala Horse Properties and Horse Farms Forever, united against the government and fought for their homes, horses, and farms.

In an effort to create new growth in rural Marion County, the Coastal Connector would extend the Suncoast Parkway and connect it to Interstate 75 with a goal to bring new jobs into the area. Unfortunately, this also meant that the parkway would cut through the county’s designated Farmland Preservation Area, damaging hundreds of horse farms in the process.

As local realtors, few were more in tune as to how these roads would impact the equestrian community than the Ocala Horse Properties team, made up of Matt Varney and Chris and Rob Desino.

“We got wind of the Coastal Connector very early on. And Rob, myself, and Chris pride ourselves on looking pretty far in the future and understanding what could happen. If you don’t protect what you have now, you’ll lose it. We looked at this and looked at the potential route and thought, ‘Now, this will decimate some of the nicest horse farms in the country’,” said Matt.

The Ocala Horse Properties team and several other individuals, including the future president of Horse Farms Forever, Bernie Little, saw an opportunity arise from the chaos to create a long-lasting organization that stood for no single discipline, breed, or creed. This resulted in Horse Farms Forever, a watchdog group with an honorable mission: to protect the horses we all love and save the land they need in order to thrive. All three members of the Ocala Horse Properties Team, Rob, Chris, and Matt, are founding members.

For someone who is part of a watchdog group protecting an area from development, ironically, Matt actually comes from a family of developers. But, as he explains, he’s not against responsible development — but he is against development that would damage the very essence of Ocala.

“Ocala is what it is because of horses. We were all for reasonable and responsible growth, but this was basically plowing through a billion dollar industry. And we felt there was no way there was a developed understanding as to the impact these roads would have on our coveted soils and floodplains.”

“If you’re going to build a road, you look for high, dry open green pastures. And when they looked at Marion County on a Google Earth map, all they saw were big, open green pastures in the Northwest, and they thought it’d be the perfect place to put a Turnpike,” said Bernie Little, president of Horse Farms Forever. “Nobody really got on the ground and looked to see that they were going through the heart of some of the most precious horse farms in the United States.”

The Farmland Preservation Area that the Coastal Connector would cut through isn’t just protecting the open, undeveloped land that is so crucial to horse owners. The area was also designated as protected in 2005 “to manage growth and protect the area’s valuable soils, water and spring sheds.”

A large portion of Marion County’s 1200 horse farms are located within the Farmland Preservation Area. Why? It all comes down to the soil. Marion County is one of only five places in the world that has soil with a thick layer of limestone near the surface. Besides Ocala, Lexington, Kentucky; Newmarket, England; and Chantilly, France all have the same soil structure and are similarly renowned for producing high-quality horses. The grass that grows from this limestone-rich soil is filled with all the minerals and nutrients horses need to develop strong hooves and bones. Per the Horse Farms Forever website, “If those areas are developed, the horse industry cannot just ‘move’ to another area. Horses cannot graze with the same intensity on sandy soils.”

“At Horse Farms Forever, we seek to shine a spotlight on why it’s important to protect the Farmland Preservation Area. And we do that through education,” said Bernie Little. “We talk about why the soil is unique and important, why the area was established. It’s really the lungs for two of the most precious primary springs in the United States: Rainbow Springs and Silver Springs State Park.”

Sadly, Marion County has a history of losing horse farms to projects like the Coastal Connector. Marion County’s first Thoroughbred Farm was established in 1936 by Carl Rose. Due to the limestone-rich structure of the soil, he believed the area was particularly excellent for raising horses and cattle and encouraged other breeders to move to the Ocala area. He is responsible for the establishment of 30 Thoroughbred horse farms in Marion County. After raising horses for nearly 30 years, Rose succumbed to pressure and sold the farm to developers at a nearly 15000% percent increase in price per acre. Where once stood Rosemere Farm, now stands a Walmart.

Horse Farms Forever strives not to let that happen again.

The equestrian community has a bit of an unsavory reputation for being exclusive, even within its own sport. Whether Western vs English, eventers vs hunter jumpers, dressage riders vs show jumpers, there are many different “cliques” within the community that rarely come together. However, the Coastal Connector was one of those rare catalysts that saw the entire equestrian community come together to fight for a shared goal: to save their horses and their farms. After all, whether it was a 5-acre farmette or a 100-acre professional facility, everyone was going to be similarly impacted by the proposal.

Rob Desino, now the vice president of Horse Farms Forever, was shocked at the initial routes as well.

“There was probably not one farm in Ocala that would not have been affected negatively by some of these routes, either seeing it or hearing it being developed, or having it go through their property. We were able to fund support very quickly and we created a voice that was heard immediately,” he said.

Everyone was joining the fight to save Ocala’s Farmland Preservation Area.

“At the county commissioners meetings, it was literally standing room only, people showed up with their horse trailers. We’re talking, you know, somebody who just moved to Florida and bought a three acre farm using all their life savings, and they have their kid’s horse at home. They were out there at the meetings, too,” Rob said. “We had such a strong presence that it caused a huge commotion.”

Upon first hearing about the Coastal Connector, Matt delivered a powerful speech in front of a packed house at the County Commission Chambers. After the speech, which aired the grievances of the entire community, the commissioners began drafting a resolution against the Coastal Connector. But the Ocala Horse Properties team knew this was just the first step in a long fight.

Backed by the Ocala horse community, Horse Farms Forever took a stand against the Coastal Connector project. The organization approached their Herculean task from several different angles. Not only did they attend meetings and submit counter proposals, but Rob actually traveled to Tallahassee and met with the governor himself.

“In the beginning, Bernie Little, myself and some founders made a trip up to Tallahassee and met with the Florida Secretary of Transportation. And they completely agreed with all of the issues of the project. They promised a letter within 30 days, basically, to cancel the project. And 30 days became 40 days, which became 50 days, and we finally got a letter which did not abandon the project, but postponed the project.”

A postponement wasn’t good enough for either the Horse Farms Forever team or the farm owners of Marion County.

“Can you imagine being an elderly couple and they have to sell, or somebody has cancer and they have to sell, or an estate trying to sell property? But now you have a property you can’t sell because there’s five routes still slapped up on a map,” Rob said. “That was affecting thousands of people and hundreds of farms. There was a dark cloud hanging over all of them.

“After a few weeks I knew we had to do more. I met with the governor’s office again and they finally agreed that postponement would not be good enough,” said Rob.

After months of hard work, their efforts paid off. In April of 2020, the governor’s office completely abandoned the project.

“The governor’s office said to me, ‘Rob, we understand the issue with postponement and are preparing a response. What we ask of you is to help with the language that would serve your area best.’ Matt and myself sat down and drafted language and the Governor’s office later created a letter addressed to Kathy Bryant, who was fantastic during this process, and the head county commission. We were proud because the state literally took our paragraph word for word about abandoning all routes.”

The legacy of the Coastal Connector project is still present today, just not in the way its creators thought it would be. Knowing that there would be other development projects that would try to encroach upon the Farmland Preservation Area, Horse Farms Forever now works to actively dissuade future proposals that would impact Ocala horse farms.

“Prior to our creation, no one was really monitoring closely what the government and developers were doing. We attend any and every meeting related to growth, growth services, planning, and zoning. We read every application that is put forth to our Planning and Zoning Commission, we attend the meetings when it’s something that affects the Farmland Preservation Area, we speak at the meetings,” said Bernie. “Over the six years we’ve been in existence, we’ve created a very strong and loyal following. And not only is our opinion important to the professional staff that run Marion County, but also to the elected commissioners that govern the county, and, of course, farm owners of every shape and size.”

More than a watchdog organization, Horse Farms Forever is also a resource for farm owners. Whether you have five acres or 100 acres, you can benefit from Horse Farms Forever’s help when it comes to putting your land under a conservation easement. If you’re interested in conserving your land, check out their website here.

Horse Farms Forever is an organization for the entire Ocala horse community, not just the rich and the famous. Individuals can make monthly or one-time tax deductible donations to the project, starting at just 25 dollars. To stay up-to-date on what threats could impact your Ocala home, keep an eye on their website or sign up for their email newsletter.

“I’m unbelievably proud of what Horse Farms Forever and their staff have been able to accomplish in the last six years — it is an incredible organization,” said Rob.

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