If you’ve got it, flaunt it
By Darlene Weesner, Special to the Star-Banner, posted on Ocala.com
Scenic roads can increase income and jobs in the beautiful rural areas of Marion County. The designation of scenic roads or routes does not “cost” anything and gives the county bragging rights as “the most beautiful county in Florida” (in addition to the Horse Capital of the World).
The fifth largest county in the state has a plethora of resources and ecosystems that can contribute to the visitor experience. Vacationers, “staycationers,” retirees and local adventurers have countless opportunities for meaningful recreation if there was an improvement in detailed information about where and how to find them. By identifying special roads or routes, access to unique sites and vistas can be more easily attained.
Several community groups have been gathering information for maps that could stimulate economic activity in rural areas, without compromising our beautiful scenery.
Since 1997, designated scenic roads of the Shady area have provided pleasant drives or rides — by horse or bicycle — to the Cross Florida Greenway. Tree-lined lanes meandering toward the Greenway offer cool, shadowy views of overhanging foliage framing pastoral scenes of grazing horses and cattle. These scenic byways pass near historic Indian and pioneer sites as well as homes and farms conveying a rural charm that is disappearing from the American landscape. Lush hardwood forests grace the hills, which are high water recharge lands for Silver Springs, the largest inland spring in the world.
This area is part of a limestone ridge holding water underground like a sponge north and south of Ocala. Underlying geology in mapping of valuable farmland reveals exceptional recharge of rainfall to the aquifer, where urban, very intensive land use above ground can cause extensive pollution below ground. Caves, sinkholes and solution pipes draining directly underground are most numerous in this area.
Vegetation and trees along the scenic roads lessens the effect of road run-off carrying traffic pollution. Although every roadway is a “waterway” to the aquifer, two-lane roads cause much less disruption of recharge and degradation by pollution draining underground. The greater the variety of vegetation along the scenic roads, the more “filter” of living organisms available to purify the run-off.
The Farmland Preservation Area should have more scenic byways on special maps in order that visitors can appreciate the working landscapes and production of agriculture. The revised Comprehensive Plan for 2035 in Marion County classifies most of Marion County as rural, with an urban boundary designating where future growth will be directed and the infrastructure planned for funding. Therefore, it makes fiscal sense to avoid sprawl thus removing the need for road expansions.
According to Organic Trade Association reports, the industry grew nationally at 8 percent in 2010, with fruit and vegetable sales totaling $10.5 billion — showing an important contribution of organic farming to rural livelihoods. For several thousand years, the “culture” of the county has been agriculture due to fertile soils and availability of water. New agribusiness is developing from consumer demand for quality food produced locally.
Historically, Marion County farms shipped vegetables and citrus to northern markets by river steamers and trains, which helped Florida recover from the economic losses of the Civil War ahead of other Southern states. The ravages of that war so devastated the Confederacy that food and cattle from Marion County plantations were major factors sustaining the Rebel effort the last year of the war.
By the 1880s, a trip down the Ocklawaha River to Silver Springs became Florida’s must-see attraction, launching tourism and lucrative trade.
Designation of scenic roads inspires landowners to consider aesthetics in maintaining their land. Property values rise as an added benefit to counteract the slumping real estate market. Those living in the rural areas of the county pay more in taxes, relative to services received, than urban residents who receive services beyond the amount of taxes they pay. Land held in farms and open space saves tax money for urban infrastructure.
The Marion County Commission has an opportunity to bring more ecotourism, new business and jobs to the county by supporting the recommendations of the Scenic Road Advisory Committee and designate more roads that form logical loops for visitor enjoyment. Rural folks can find satisfaction and income in sharing their lifestyle, and city folks can reap a bounty of fresh produce, “day camp” farm experience, enrich the learning of their children and develop a sense of place in the diverse community that is Marion County.
Darlene Weesner is an artist, environmentalist and former member of the Marion County Planning Commission.