Polk County's planning commission voted 5-2 on Wednesday to approve a plan to allow an animal park with a controversial past to open its doors to the public.
The hearing for the park now called Safari Wilderness Ranch lasted more than 2 hours.
Dr. Stephen Wehrmann and former Lowry Park Zoo director Lex Salisbury, owners of the ranch, have sought approval for three years to provide tours to the public. Neighbors have argued the project is a tourist attraction not a bonafide agricultural enterprise and will jeopardize the quiet rural area off Moore road.
The question the commission debated is whether the ranch qualifies under the county's new agri-tourism classification. The agri-tourism category allows working ranches and farms to supplement their incomes by offering paid tours of their operations.
Neighbor Lois Murphy told the planning commission she had many problems with the project starting with the definition of agri-tourism which states the tourism aspect shall be clearly incidental and subordinate to a bonafide agricultural use on the property.
"How are up to 500 visitors a day subordinate or incidental to the growing of hay?" she asked.
"It's strictly as I see it a commercial tourist operation in an area that's strictly cattle ranches," neighbor Ken Sherrouse told the commission.
Wehrmann argued the ranch is a legitimate agricultural entity.
"We've been out there almost six years now without one penny derived from any tourist activities; we've derived our income from animals and the sale of hay," he said.
The planning commission placed restrictions on the ranch's operation that will allow no more than 200 trips and 500 visitors a day. It can remain open seven days a week, however its hours of operation are limited from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., lodging and dining facilities are not allowed and it can only house animals that do not pose a threat to humans.
That means two Indian rhinos on the property will have to be moved before it can open to the public.
Wehrmann and Salisbury must also submit proof that the ranch qualifies for the agricultural classification each year.
Safari Wilderness Ranch sits in the Green Swamp, central Florida's major source of water.
The state Department of Community Affairs rejected the idea of allowing tourists into the park because it said Polk County violated its own policies when it permitted the park to set up house in an area of critical state concern. Agri-tourism did not fall within the county's guidelines for restricted use in the swamp, and the state rejected the plan allowing tourists.
The Polk County commission changed that and approved an agri-tourism ordinance last summer.
"I don't necessarily think that that's good government when regulations and rules are written after the fact to accommodate one person's plans and wishes," Murphy said.
She and others worry that owners Wehrmann and Salisbury will be back soon asking to expand.
"We've got a lot on our plate right now, if we can just be successful with what we're doing, we're very happy to keep this in a natural state; that's what we want to do," Wehrmann said.