Development Next to Race Tracks Goes Forward Despite Massive Opposition
Dennis "Mitch" Maley
BRADENTON – Thursday’s land use meeting drew the largest organized development opposition in Manatee County history. Fans of the Freedom Factory race track and Bradenton Motor Speedway drag strip urged county commissioners to deny a developer’s request for a comp plan amendment that would allow 4,500 homes to be built next to the tracks on land that is currently zoned agricultural. Opponents worry that the houses will spell the beginning of the end for the beloved attractions.
The developer, SMR Taylor Ranch, initiated a request for a large-scale comprehensive land use plan amendment for the future land use classification of just over 2,300 acres of property from Agricultural-Rural (1 unit per 5 acres) to Urban Fringe 3 (3 units per acre) with a text amendment setting the actual maximum density of 1.95 units per acre.
Garrett Mitchell, a popular Youtuber who goes by the name "Cleetus McFarland,“ bought the failing 63-acre speedway in 2020 and has turned it into an immensely popular attraction, called the Freedom Factory, regularly drawing standing-room-only crowds to the rural area in east Manatee.
The drag strip next to the track is owned by Victor Alvarez and operates under the name Bradenton Motorsports Park. Both owners told commissioners that they feared an approval would be the death of their businesses, citing examples of raceways throughout the country closing after new development spawned complaints from residents.
McFarland’s popularity (he has more than 3 million subscribers to his Youtube channel and regularly draws over a million views per video) helped the issue draw massive attention. A video on his secondary channel, describing the issue, drew nearly a million views. As a result, commissioners got over 15,000 emails opposing the amendment. At Thursday’s meeting, the chambers were packed with opponents, some of whom had driven across the state just to give three minutes of public comment. One fan even flew in from Arizona to offer his support at the meeting. Manatee County Commission meetings, which often have only a dozen or so viewers on the county's Youtube channel, sustained around 15,000 viewers until the item was voted on.
The door for the project was opened by a text amendment passed by commissioners in November of 2021 that allowed for the eastward expansion of Lakewood Ranch. That amendment created something of an FDAB exception for an amendment to the geographic extent of future development on land coterminous and contiguous to the FDAB, when it is a continuation of west-to-east development under a single master developer who is responsible for infrastructure improvements, and when the infrastructure for utilities and roads are available without adverse impact to the county's ability to serve the utility service area.
Representatives for the developer said they planned to put an 80-foot berm and 25-foot fence between the property and the tracks, but opponents noted that such measures would do little to nothing in terms of mitigating the sound of top-fuel drag cars and other events emanating from the two facilities.
Commissioners noted that the transmittal to the state was only the first step and that it would have to come back before the board after. In response, several opponents noted the infrequency in which proposed comp plan amendments transmitted to the state didn’t get approved by the county afterward.
Despite ardent opposition from the public, commissioners ultimately voted 5-2 to transmit the proposed amendments to the state, with commissioners Satcher and Bearden dissenting. Click here to see video of the item’s portion of the meeting. A reaction video posted by McFarland after the meeting can be seen below.