'Don't let my racetrack die': Housing, horsepower clash with sprawl reaching Bradenton raceways

Residents from Lee, Charlotte, Hillsborough, Manatee, St. Lucie, Seminole, Pasco, Pinellas, Volusia, and Hardee counties, plus Arizona and Wisconsin, filled the benches at Manatee County Commission's land use meeting Thursday to oppose forward movement on a housing development proposed next to two of the loudest attractions in the Tampa Bay Area – Bradenton Motorsports Park and the Freedom Factory.

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The developer is asking for a zoning change for their land, from agricultural to residential. Hundreds of opponents who showed up for the meeting pleaded with the commission to squash the proposal. 

They argue that, once new residents move into their new homes in the development, the racetrack's days are numbered.

Public comment lasted nearly 3 hours, with residents from across Florida, and across the country, lined up to tell their story.

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Developer presentation slides for housing near Bradenton Motorsports Park, Freedom Factory

"Don't let my racetrack die."

It started with the owners of the oval Freedom Factory track and adjoining Bradenton Motorsports Park drag strip.

Garrett Mitchelle, known by millions as Cleetus McFarland, has nearly 2.5 million followers on Youtube, who tune in to see videos of racing and raceway life. 

Garrett Mitchelle, aka Cleetus McFarland, owner of the Freedom Factory, at Manatee County Commission land use meeting on development near his business

His followers and fans launched an email campaign to commissioners the day before the meeting, urging them to vote against allowing the developer to take its plan to the next stage. 

On the day of the meeting, Mitchelle and many of the speedway's supporters made their case on the issue of noise. 

Mitchelle started by showing the spot on a map of "the typical place where I knock the head gasket out of my engine… causing a loud explosion that every house in this community is going to hear." 

Cleetus McFarland points to his raceway on map next to proposed housing development

He said many racetracks around the country have failed after new homes are built and residents quickly become distressed by the sounds of loud cars and excited fans. 

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh proposed realtors would have to get new residents to sign a statement that they know the track is there. Mitchelle said residents are not able to foresee just how loud the track is.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh at Manatee County Commission land use meeting on development near Bradenton Motorsports

Mitchelle said he hopes to one day pass the business to his son and argued the impact to Manatee County and his business would be devastating. 

"If I came to you commissioners today to ask you to rezone my land to build two massive, loud racetracks right next to 4,500 homes that stood there for 50 years, would you approve it? If the answer to that is ‘no,’ then this is not a compatible use of the land," Mitchelle said. "Don't let my racetrack die."

Watch the full meeting on Youtube

The owner of Bradenton Motorsports Park, Victor Alvarez of Tampa, said he also hopes to make his business part of the family, when his daughter grows up. 

His argument included the potential for race fans to resort to street racing if the drag way were to close. 

Victor Hernandez, Bradenton Motorsports Park owner, at Manatee County Commission land use meeting on development near his business

"If you drive around Tampa on a Saturday night, there's street racing everywhere," Alvarez said. "We don't have that problem here because these people have a safe haven, they have a safe place to go and race. Motorsports is a lifestyle."

Race fans at the meeting agreed. 

Watch response to meeting from Garrett "Cleetus McFarland" Mitchelle on Youtube

One man said he flew to Florida from Arizona to express his opposition, in person. Several moms told commissioners that their teen children loved racing and were scared they might be tempted by illegal racing if the track had to close. 

"Right now we don't have a problem and you have the opportunity to keep it that way." 

Several commenters pointed to other zoning regulations prevent mismatched development. 

"You don't build a Navy ship in the middle of Denver and you don't build houses next to a racetrack," one man said.

Another man pointed out that zoning prevents things like liquor stores near churches and gentlemen's clubs near schools.

"Right now we don't have a problem and you have the opportunity to keep it that way," another told commissioners.

Nicholas Hernadez, who said he is a mechanical engineer in Manatee County and also works with residents who are housing insecure, sympathized with the need for more housing, but said building next to a raceway is not the answer. He said it could actually be damaging to the health of those living in the proposed development.

Nicholas Hernandez speaks during public comment at at Manatee County Commission land use meeting on development near Freedom Factory, Bradenton Motorsports

"At the levels that these vehicles make, 150 decibels, they're no longer noises, they're waves that you feel through your body that can cause heart palpitations, heart disease and many other chronic diseases," Hernandez said, citing data from the CDC. "It's not just that it would disrupt people's lives. It would actually ruin people's lives, potentially kill people," he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guide to workplace noise exposure and hearing loss, the limit for exposure to sounds up to 85 decibels is 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Employers in the U.S. are required to limit employees' noise exposure to this guideline. Information about noise impacts on the rest of the body was not readily available on the CDC's website.

Project moves forward, despite opposition

Even commissioners expressed their own desires to preserve the track, after public comment was complete.

"I will defend this racetrack up and down," Commissioner Mike Rahn said.

Pictured left to right, commissioners James Satcher, Jason Bearden & Mike Rahan

Commissioner Jason Bearden said he "want(s) to make sure this track is protected, no matter what."

Commissioner George Kruse offered perspective in favor of the developer, saying he wants to protect the track, but the county "can't do it at the expense of someone else's property."

"We can't tell someone they can't use their property," he said.

Commissioner George Kruse at Manatee County Commission land use meeting on development near Bradenton Motorsports

With that, the commission decided to let the project move forward to the site plan stage, which would include information about how the developer will mitigate sound impacts on new homes.

The vote was 5-2 in favor.