By Joe Naiman
San Diego County Planning Commission supports a tiered ordinance as part of the update of the county’s equine regulations.
The commission’s 7-0 vote May 20 sends the recommendation to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which is expected to hold a hearing June 29. The commission recommended the tiered ordinance from among the four options developed by county Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) staff. The actual ordinance will be developed after the supervisors provide direction regarding potential content of the tiered ordinance.
“I’m glad to see this is going in the right direction,” said Bonsall resident David Puchta, president of the San Diego County Horsemen’s Association. “It’s long overdue.”
A 5-0 Board of Supervisors vote March 2 directed the county’s chief administrative officer to work with the county’s equestrian community and any other interested parties to investigate options to protect and promote equine operations throughout unincorporated San Diego County. The options included the potential development of a tiered ordinance, similar to what the county has adopted for wineries.
Carl Stiehl led the effort on behalf of DPLU, organizing four stakeholder meetings and contacting community planning and sponsor groups. Stiehl and Claudia Loeber led a DPLU review of state law and of activities undertaken by other jurisdictions.
“They were really cooperative,” said John Degenfelder of Ramona. “The county’s been cooperative. Stiehl did a great job. It’s really neat to get all this squared away.”
Stiehl noted that the county’s equine regulations consist of horsekeeping, which allows for private use on properly-zoned parcels, and commercial stables. Commercial stables include boarding and breeding operations, that do not involve visitors from the general public, and commercial stables also include public stables that provide riding lessons, training, trail rides, equestrian events and other activities that attract members of the public. The equine regulations were developed more than 30 years ago as part of the county’s Zoning Ordinance.
The update will focus on commercial stables and is not likely to change horsekeeping zoning. Issues that will be considered include traffic, noise, flies and other vectors, stormwater, dust and grading concerns, size of the operation and parcel, and proximity to neighbors.
DPLU staff developed four options:
•Option A would allow horse stables with ministerial rather than discretionary permits.
•Option B is the tiered ordinance, which based on the property size and number of horses would require a ministerial permit for some activities, an administrative permit (involves notification to neighboring properties and public review but does not require a hearing unless one is requested by any party) for larger activities, and a Minor Use Permit or Major Use Permit for the largest operations.
•Option C would require discretionary permits for all commercial stables but would change some use permit requirements to the administrative permit process.
•Option D would maintain the current regulations with no changes.
Option A or Option B would require a Programmatic Environmental Impact Report. A funding source for that EIR would be identified before the ordinance and the corresponding EIR are developed, and the Planning Commission hearing on the actual ordinance would not take place until the EIR has been circulated for public review.
The equestrian stakeholders didn’t object to Option A but said that Option B was the most reasonable measure and accepted the tiered ordinance concept.
“A tiered ordinance would strike a balance,” Stiehl said. “It addresses direction to the board and stakeholder concerns.”
San Diego County Equestrian Federation President Michell Kimball noted that any ministerial or discretionary permit would require compliance with best management practices for the various impacts.
“It is important to have an established set of BMPs,” she said.
Commissioner Michael Beck noted that the tiered ordinance would likely lead to better BMP compliance. “I think there’s a real potential upside to this whole thing,” he said.
“I’m in total concurrence with the Board of Supervisors’ direction,” said Janis Shackelford of Blossom Valley. “Option A or B will help preserve the rural character of our backcountry.”
Because the equestrian stakeholders invited to the meetings were those identified by the groups that worked with Supervisor Dianne Jacob to start the process of updating the equine ordinances, some equestrian groups did not participate in the process. The Blossom Valley Riders and Gardeners endorsed Option A, and Shackelford encouraged the county to work with all equine stakeholder groups.
The San Dieguito Community Planning Group voted 10-0 to oppose any changes to the regulations.
“Some of us own horses, others don’t,” San Dieguito Community Planning Group member Jacqueline Arsivaud said of the unanimous vote.
Some areas of the San Dieguito planning area allow horsekeeping while others prohibit horses.
“Horsekeeping is a core element of the community character,” Arsivaud said. “Where it is allowed it is a valued part of the community character.”
Arsivaud expressed concern that an expansion of equine activity in the area would hamper evacuation efforts when horse trailers are added to the cars of people leaving the area.
“That’s a safety concern that has been brought up by the community,” she said.
Horse trailers being brought to and from activities can also have traffic impacts in non-emergency conditions.
“We very much value our small, winding, narrow roads,” Arsivaud said.
The tiered ordinance is based on the county’s past experience with local wineries, and issues involving private roads were a major concern during the debate over the winery ordinance.
Planning Commissioner John Riess noted that traffic on private roads to and from equestrian facilities would likely exceed traffic to and from tasting rooms of boutique wineries, whose definition in terms of annual production limits on-site public activity.
“This is going to be more active than the wineries,” Riess said.
Oliver Smith, the chair of the Valley Center Community Planning Group, noted his planning group’s support of relaxing the ordinance but dislikes the concept of a permit whose conditions require asphalt paving.
“Livestock and horse shelters should not be considered the same as human dwelling facilities,” he said.
In November 2010 the Planning Commission approved a Major Use Permit to allow participant events at Mountain Valley Ranch at State Route 78 and Magnolia Avenue in Ramona. The conditions of the permit included making road improvements to Magnolia Avenue. DPLU Director Eric Gibson noted that a project fronting a public road may be required to make improvements to that road.
“The trigger in most cases is the discretionary permit,” Gibson said.
“It wouldn’t make sense to have the internal roads paved,” Beck said. “If the major use of the property is equestrian use, you don’t want paved roads.”
“Equestrian businesses should be considered agricultural businesses, not commercial,” Smith said. “The ordinance needs a practical and simplified means for horse organizations and clubs.”
Smith added that implementing reasonable and efficient management practices would protect neighboring properties.
“We are in an area that is rural and agricultural, and horses are part of our culture and our heritage,” Morton said.
Lisa Wood of Lakeside noted that relaxing regulations wouldn’t lead to a massive increase in equestrian businesses.
“The challenges of running an equestrian facility are enormous,” she said.
Kay Greenwood of Elfin Forest owns six rescue horses and also gives riding lessons. “You would be allowing healthy cottage businesses in our equestrian community,” she said.
When Dana Mottola lived in Ramona, her homeowners’ association said she needed a Major Use Permit to have a carriage business based on her property. She had one horse and one carriage and moved to the San Pasqual area and had that business briefly before work on Interstate 15 eliminated her use of that property. She now lives on a ranch in Dulzura and has 40 head of cattle.
“It is agriculture,” Mottola said of equestrian operations. “Agriculture is at an all-time low. We need to be for agriculture in every aspect.”
Kimball owns property in Elfin Forest and in the Eden Valley portion of unincorporated Escondido, but she moved to La Cresta on the outskirts of Murrieta because Riverside County has more favorable equestrian regulations.
The daughter of Planning Commissioner Peder Norby owns a horse and boards it at a friend’s house in Twin Oaks Valley.
“I think I just found out that my daughter is operating illegally,” Norby said.
Norby agrees that a small commercial operation usually defrays expenses rather than makes the entirety of horsekeeping profitable for a property owner.
“We can keep this type of use in San Diego County,” he said.
“Our direction was to preserve the existing equestrian uses,” said DPLU planner Joe Farace, who noted that a ministerial permit is not truly by right but rather is granted upon completion of conditions on a checklist.
Best management practices are in many ordinances, so a checklist would consolidate those for the appropriate type of user.