Whispering Meadows Ranch, the venerated equine therapy non-profit that’s operated discreetly but with an outsized county following off John Anderson Highway for the past 13 years, survived a key vote this evening as the Flagler County Planning Board recommended approval of a special zoning use of the grounds, enabling the ranch to keep operating. That’s assuming the County Commission follows suit when it considers the matter in coming weeks. Absent the special exception, the ranch will face closure.
The board’s unanimous vote, riding on some conditions limiting the ranch’s operations and growth, followed three hours of often poignant and at times tearful testimonies from legions of ranch followers and users, including many children who depend on the ranch for their emotional and mental well-being.
The vote, far from assured at the beginning of the hearing, did not happen without plenty of anguish, too, on the part of ranch supporters, who know this is only one step, and a non-binding one at that. The ranch’s fate still rests with the County Commission.
“This is an embarrassing conversation to even be having,” Colleen Conklin, the Flagler County School Board member, told the planning board near the beginning of the public comment period. “Our community is better than this. Our county is better than this. This is shameful that we are even having to have this conversation after 13 years. The county knew this program was going on. Everybody knew this program was going on.”
Unusually on a public issue of such import, fellow-School Board member Janet McDonald would echo Conklin’s comments moments later, citing the “essential, absolutely essential services that Whispering Meadows provides.” The overwhelming number of comments were along the same theme, including yet another school board voice–John Fisher, who McDonald defeated–imploring planning board members to “reflect on actually your conscience to see what is the right thing.”
“They’re there to help, they save lives,” Fisher said of the ranch owners. “If there were more people like them, our world would be a better place.”
There was no disagreement this evening about Whispering meadows’ mission and reach–not from its supporters or its neighbors or even from those who want it shut down. Yet something changed abruptly, radically, putting the fate of Whispering Meadows Ranch’s fate on the line late last year. A long-dormant land use designation was suddenly revived by the county. It categorized the treasured equine therapy ranch at 5011 John Anderson Highway as a commercial enterprise and deemed it an inadmissible operation in a residential area, absent special permission.
“Are we threatening to shut this down?” Commissioner Joe Mullins asked County Administrator Jerry Cameron on Feb. 28.
Cameron summed it up in an email to Mullins: “In order to continue operations in the future they must seek and the Board must approve a classification as ‘A Semi-Public Use’. While their application is pending they will be allowed to continue operations.”
Yet it was never an issue for 13 years. For those 13 years, Helene and Richard Davis have run the 4.5 acres ranch as a therapeutic refuge for people who struggle with mild to severe disabilities, for people who live with PTSD, autism, pathological angers or fears, children in foster care and children who have experienced loss, and who, through the ranch’s equine–or horse–therapy, find their way to more serene, to more livable lives.
There are four horses and one pony on the ranch. The maximum number of participants on any given day ranges between 15 and 20, staggered over 30 to 60 minute sessions, at $40 a session, though more typically, eight children have sessions through the day. The ranch operates by appointment only, five days a week. The organization is valued enough to have drawn a partnership with Daytona State College, whose occupational therapy students get trained there, and drawn volunteers from the county’s high schools.
For 13 years, “we’ve received no complaints,” County Planning Director Adam Mengel said this evening. “And even now, for the record, we have received no complaints related to this operation at 5011 John Anderson highway.”
For those 13 years, the county let Whispering meadows be, a non-profit non-issue in so far as land use and zoning matters were concerned. “The county has known about this ranch in a loving manner, silently accepted it for 13 years and has preserved its present without issue for 13 years,” Lynn Rossmeyer of Ormond Beach said.
The county’s awakening to that land use designation was precipitated by John and Redempta Burek, who have owned 6.8 vacant acres adjoining the ranch since 2002, when they bought the land for $230,000. They want to sell. The property is listed for $549,000 by Coldwell Banker Realtor Lisa Gardner, who happens to be married to the Flagler County property appraiser, Jay Gardner, who was in the audience this evening and who also lives on John Anderson. Whispering Meadows proponents all evening alluded to collusion favoring political connections over community benefit. As Mark Mascone put it tonight, “I don’t know anything about horse poop, but I know an awful lot about bull poop.”
The Bureks have reportedly lost a potential sale, blaming the neighboring ranch’s non-compliance with local zoning for depressing property values.
The Bureks are represented by Michael Chiumento, the land-use attorney, who writes that the current land use “has an adverse effect on the neighboring residential properties as attested to by a Brokers Price Opinion showing at least a 10% decrease in property value.” He sums up the issue this way: the ranch has operated for years out of compliance with county rules. The property owners shouldn’t be asking permission for a semi-public use, nor should the county be granting “forgiveness” for years of non-compliance.
“Allowing such would promote individuals to ignore the County’s rules and regs,” he wrote in a memo to the Planning Board and county administrative officials. “Moreover, if permitted any property owner in the area would be permitted to operate a semi-public use and therefore, adversely affecting the adjacent properties and character of community.”
“You guys are here to apply the land development code, not to judge whether this is a good organization or not,” Chiumento told the planning board tonight. “So, not getting into the semantics of whether this is a good business, whether it’s in the right location, or whether it was, you know, known by the community or by the county for 13 years, let’s just follow the law.”
Dennis Bayer, the Flagler Beach attorney who has often found himself opposing Chiumento, has represented the ranch for the duration of its life on John Anderson. He attributed this evening’s hearing to Chiumento’s clients losing a real estate sale. He summarized efforts to work with the Bureks to address their concerns, restricting operational horse or uses of the property and remaining open to other constructive advice. He didn’t hear back.
“Mr. Chiumento characterizes us as asking forgiveness rather than permission,” Bayer said. “We’re not asking for forgiveness at all. We’re trying to maintain the stability within the neighborhood, be a good neighbor with our neighbors. As you can see here tonight, We’ve got a lot of folks that are our guests that have benefited from the program.” He disputed “disturbing” allegations that the ranch posed a safety issue. “ We’ve never had an issue, and I really don’t anticipate that occurring in the future,” he said.
Maria Radojkovic, who lives “about six houses away” on Creek Bluff Run, verbalized a concern that stood outside the political or real estate wrangles and addressed more immediate fears, albeit with misconceptions of her own: “Everybody agrees, they’re doing a great job. This is great,” she said of the ranch’s operations. “Only thing we are concerned about if they get a license, every other Joe Schmo who has an opportunity to open something up, it’s going to open the door.” She said it was not about devaluation of properties, but simply about “we just don’t want business and residentials is that simple.”
Sean Moylan, the assistant county attorney, not much later dismissed what he described as the “slippery slope” argument, “that if you approve this, other businesses will come and it sets a bad precedent. That is not competent substantial evidence,” he said. “All of those property owners already have the right to apply. It’s everybody’s right under the land development code, they could have a vacation rental, they could have a home occupation, and they could also have a semi-public use, if it were approved.”
It was, for now.