Weighing in on the Proposed WEC Jockey Club Development

Eventers are well familiar with the former Ocala Jockey Club, a 1,028-acre property in Reddick, Florida that hosted FEI events through the CCI4*-L level from 2016-2019. It was purchased from the Nygaard family in 2021

Weighing in on the Proposed WEC Jockey Club Development

The view from the clubhouse at the Ocala Jockey Club. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Eventers are well familiar with the former Ocala Jockey Club, a 1,028-acre property in Reddick, Florida that hosted FEI events through the CCI4*-L level from 2016-2019. It was purchased from the Nygaard family in 2021 by the Golden Ocala Equestrian Land (GOEL) organization, to be rebranded and expanded as the WEC Jockey Club. Former owner Pavla Nygaard weighs in on the proposed WEC Jockey Club development plans in advance of a zoning meeting to be held today at 2 p.m.

On March 1st, Marion County Board of County Commissioners is set to hold a public meeting to discuss, among other items, the proposed development a farm complex on Highway 318 in Reddick, known during my family’s 16-year ownership as the Ocala Jockey Club farm (“OJC”) and now being rebranded as the WEC Jockey Club by its new owner, Golden Ocala Equestrian Land, which is also associated with the expansive World Equestrian Center in Ocala (“WEC”).

We sold the farm complex to WEC in August 2021. Horse Farms Forever, the non-profit organization working for preservation of farmland in Marion County, quoted me extensively in its recent statement of support of the WEC Jockey Club development plan. My statements, as publicized in the Horse Farms Forever statement in local media, were taken from a 2019 article in Eventing Nation regarding our family’s decision to find strategic partnerships or to sell the farm. While my statement was accurately quoted, my words were used out of context to buttress support for the WEC plan for the farm as currently presented. In light of the use of my words in connection to the proposed development in a way I would not make today, I feel I owe it to the communities of Marion County and 3-day Eventing competitors to provide my stance on the plan and how I believe it may affect the farm and the County.

I believe that this farm complex is unique from other large farms in the area. Its topography, with its rolling hills and some of the highest elevations in Florida, provides viewing and beauty unparalleled to other large tracts of land which may be successfully chopped up into small lots or 10-acre lands without destroying the character of the whole. Unlike many other farms in the area, the land has not been home to only horses but also to scores of other wildlife, from deer to turkey seen elsewhere in the County, to majestic birds from large flocks of white egrets to pairs of cranes, hawks and even bald eagles nesting on the grounds. The farm, thoughtfully and gently developed to highlight its beauty and rustic farm charm, can retain such valuable wildlife for the enjoyment of Marion County and visitors from afar. Overdevelopment, on the other hand, would force the farm to lose its greatest unique strengths and become yet another nondescript home community with McMansions devoid of the farm character that gave the property its original charm.

During the inaugural 2016 Ocala Jockey Club International 3-Day Event, I observed happy relaxed horses with ears pricked as they went over a challenging but naturally beautiful cross country course. I also heard eventing competitors one after another gush over the old oak trees, Spanish moss and overall natural beauty of the property. One of them stabled at North Carolina’s Tryon Equestrian Center and I asked him to compare the facilities there to our farm’s facilities. He thought for a second and said, “they are both great, but they are different, like you can go for a vacation at Disneyland or at a national park, have a great time at both but each has different strengths and different reasons to go.” He explained that, to him, Tryon was the Disneyland of the equestrian facilities, and OJC was the national park. This comparison came to my mind frequently, as it described the strength and allure of the farm. Now, with WEC having already created the grandest Disneyland equestrian experience in the South with WEC in Ocala, I believe that WEC Jockey Club should not follow this Disneyland style but instead offer the counterpoint with the grandest enhanced national park equestrian experience. I believe that our 4 years of running the 3-Day Event from nothing to an Olympic qualifying Event, which became one of the national favorites on the eventing calendar and the winner of the Florida Sports Small Market Event of the Year in just its second year, was a testament to our commitment to stewardship of the land. I believe it is that foundation that WEC and the community will be well rewarded to build upon.

Horse Farms Forever cited a few reasons in their article for their support for the WEC Jockey Club development. Those reasons were that: a) WEC agreed not to develop the former Crupi property and the former Plumley property to greater density than one unit per 10 acres in exchange for greater clustered density at WEC Jockey Club, b) that there is history of clustered homes at the property with 35 townhomes in the back of the farm already, c) that 60% of the farm complex would remain undeveloped, that equestrian use would continue, and d) that since WEC bought the land for $10.5 million, the modest price per acre compared to current Marion County land values meant that the property may have been vulnerable to less favorable development options.

It is true that WEC bought the farm at low land value typically associated with land developer pricing. It is not true, however, that a developer was the logical likely buyer if WEC hadn’t come to the table. We felt strongly about the type of next owner who we would contract with as our interest was to pass the ownership to a party more resource-rich and capable of proper stewardship of the land than us. We had entertained interest from various parties in the time the property was available for sale, for proposed uses between an equine therapy sanctuary to work with war veterans, horsemanship school, botanical gardens and other ideas to work with the land, mostly from those with far more passion than money. We had concerning proposals from those looking to launder cash or to convert cryptocurrency into land. We consistently turned down interest from those looking at the farm solely for development value, including one just around the time of the WEC offer. We were also in process of discussing a possible equestrian development plan in partnership with a developer which would have conserved most of the land as green space and provided equestrian trails through the entire farm complex.

When the WEC offer was brought to us in June with 48 hours for us to accept or reject, it was shrewd. It was for land value only, justified by the inflated prices of lumber and therefore the higher cost it would take WEC to make fencing and other facility repairs. The offer gave us zero compensation for the world-class 3-day eventing facilities we already established at the farm, or the value of business assets, the brand or previous USEF license attached to the facility due to having run top-level FEI events and therefore being eligible to apply for World Equestrian Games or other high-profile equestrian events in the future. We were willing to accept a far lower price from WEC than the asking price of $16.5 million for the farm because we were told they wished to continue it as an equestrian property for eventing and polo use. We knew that they had the resources to accomplish what would have been a challenge for us to do on our own. Due to WEC’s existing commitment to equestrian sport in Ocala, we felt they were the best likely steward of the property for decades to come. No word was uttered by the buyer to us about plans for low density development at any part of the farm, plans for a hotel, a 9,000 seat stadium or plans for an RV park. While it would have been foolish for us to expect no development at all on WEC’s part to improve and monetize the facility, we had confidence that the existing A-1 zoning, the farm’s inclusion in the Farm Preservation Area and Horse Farms Forever’s watchdog role would protect the integrity of the farmland in WEC’s hands. My hope is that these safeguards and the community’s passionate feedback will still protect the land I loved.

It is true that there is a cluster of 35 townhomes in the back of the middle third of our former farm. It is also true that the original plans for the farm, far before our ownership of it, called for two further similar clusters on the other two thirds of the farm. However, home community plans always put the land and green space as the center of attention. I believe this approach is not only crucial to the integrity of the farmland, but also the most likely way to properly monetize a future development.

Is it possible to build a hotel on the property and to keep the farm character intact? I believe that it is, as the answer to a hotel plan is more about the size, type, architectural design elements and whether the hotel would be intended to blend into the land or the land forced to conform to the hotel and related parking areas. One of the strongest viewing elements of the eventing cross-country course has been from the existing clubhouse, the intended location of the proposed hotel. Will this almost-360-degree view from the location be enhanced with the proposed building or destroyed? Will this new proposed hotel fit into the land and history of the location, or simply add a large concrete block to house participants? If it is merely the latter, I am aware of available properly zoned location closer to I-75 that would be close enough but not need to disturb the farm’s integrity. If the former, it may very well enhance the awe-inspiring experience of those visitors who choose to use the hotel.

I don’t believe that an RV park is in any way compatible with the character of the property. Yes, it may be convenient and, yes, it may cut down on some traffic. But having a permanent RV park in some of the prettiest section of the land devalues the beauty of the property and brings potential environmental issues due to possible oil, gas or sewage spills affecting the pure aquifers under the land. There are other nearby existing RV parks or far less iconic tracts that could or should be used for such use.

Is a 9,000 seat stadium compatible with the farmland preservation status of the farm or necessary for its highest and best use as an elite equestrian facility? I doubt it is necessary, and I am concerned that, unless executed with mastery and skill to blend into the land, it risks turning a natural treasure into just another sports arena that could be built on any flat uninteresting piece of land. A valuable model of a facility that is part of nature and yet is capable of attracting around 130,000 visitors is the Burghley House Preservation Trust and adjoining land in England, which is the host to the 5-star Burghley Horse Trials. The annual report and accounts of the pre-pandemic 2018/2019 year show clearly that it is possible to maintain character of historical beautiful land while attracting prestige, visitors and profits. I would encourage WEC, the County Commissioners and community members to peruse this report (“Burghley House 2019 Preservation Report“) to imagine what could be possible for our former farm.

Housing development may very well be part of both a necessary plan to monetize WEC’s investment into the farm complex as well as carry potential for uplifting the overall neighborhood. However, since resources are not of concern to WEC in the way they were to us, any housing development should be made wisely such that ample green space remains, not just on part of the farm complex, but throughout the entirety of the complex with a network of equestrian and mixed use trails, parks, gardens, and pleasant village community feeling. The plan currently shows one third of the property devoted to nothing but homes. I have walked almost every foot of the land and I am familiar with the landscape and the green space potential. I am concerned that the home development plan currently shown will not preserve the greenspace, the wildlife or the overall farm character. It will simply import downtown to this rural part of the county, intended to pay attention to farmland preservation. As Horse Farms Forever states in their newsletter byline, “once erased, our farmland can never be replaced.”

I support the idea of development at our former farm in concept. I know all too well that it is challenging to operate the farm successfully in an under-developed form while it pays out more in expenses than gets back in income. Our legacy of creating the 3-Day Eventing competition and preserving the beautiful farmland has its highest chance of happening if WEC is successful with their ownership. However, it is clear that the time is now for the community, Horse Farms Forever and the County Commissioners to carefully consider what WEC’s plans are for the WEC Jockey Club, and how they add or detract from the community for years to come. It is important to ensure that specific land preservation commitments are made by WEC now that the owner will be accountable to keep. As well, while the development of eventing, driving and polo facilities are a great addition to Marion County, it is also important to consider that there already are other viable and sustainable lower-level facilities currently running similar events, and the intention of the WEC Jockey Club should be to provide a unique world class venue to create more high-profile high-impact opportunities for Marion County, rather than to run round-the-clock events or to divert business from other existing facilities or Mom-and-Pop neighborhood farms.

The preservation of greenspace, farm character and the farm’s ability to wow locals and visitors from near and far cannot be left to chance. Even if it seems attractive to trade agreements of less development at the Crupi and Plumley farms to allow significant development further north of town, a potential trojan horse exists. I recommend for the community and the Marion County Board of County Commissioners to reject the existing plans on the table for WEC Jockey Club and to get back to the negotiating table to revise the development plans in order to keep the substance of some of the proposed development, to completely reject and source more suitable alternatives for some aspects such as the RV park, and to ensure design compatibility with the Farmland Preservation Area of other elements such as the home development, hotel or stadium. Taking the time to do the plan right at this juncture is far better than to approve it fast but lose this important jewel of farmland forever.

Irrespective of whether you support the proposed development as is, oppose it or support it with ideas for modifications, please carefully consider arguments on all sides of the proposed WEC Jockey Club development and make your views known at the March 1st, 2022 Marion County Board of County Commissioners meeting held at 601 SE 25th Ave, Ocala FL 34471. Planning and Zoning is item 15 on the Agenda, starting at 2 pm. There will be opportunity for public comment. The meeting details and agenda packet can be found in the 3/1/22 meeting section here.