Note: the meeting originally scheduled for Monday evening, May 17, at 5 p.m., has been tabled for at least four weeks. See: “Tabling Tonight’s Hearing, Whispering Meadows Ranch and County ‘Very Close to an Agreement’ as Talks Continue.”
Driving down John Anderson Highway you’re likelier than not to miss the entrance to Whispering Meadows Ranch, unless you know what you’re looking for. Like every property along John Anderson past the clusters around State Road 100, it’s invisible. It spreads behind hedges and trees and that old-Florida lushness that still defines that area of the county.
In recent weeks a couple of canary-yellow signs, entirely out of place at the ranch’s entrance, might catch your attention. They’re the kind of blunt placards that notice a public hearing, when the property they’re planted on is involved in some kind of land use issue before a local government board. Whispering Meadows doesn’t actually have an issue. A few of its neighbors–and a few might be an exaggeration–do.
Mary Helene and Richard Davis have lived at the 5.4-acre property and its 2,600-square-foot house for some 22 years. They’ve run Whispering Meadows, providing horse, or equine, therapy a few hours a day to veterans and disabled children for almost 14 of those years, in a pen in back of the property. They might have eight children on a given day riding in 30 to 60minute sessions after school. The maximum number of people they may have there is 15 to 20, including volunteers, who help run the place, along with Kristine Aguirre, Mary and Richard’s daughter.
Though it’s long known of the ranch’s operations–the last three sheriffs, Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs and many other civic organizations whose boards and memberships are interchangeable with elected officials have fund-raised and supported the ranch for years–county government earlier this year required the Davises to fill out an application that would for the first time permit semi-public use of the property. They were told they should’ve done so from the start, though no one had brought that to their attention previously. Nor has county government, code enforcement or any other division or government agency or neighbor ever complained about the ranch in any way.
That changed a few months ago when John Tanner, the former state attorney and one of the ranch’s most immediate neighbors, did complain, and drafted other neighbors to raise concerns about the ranch’s operations. Much of the concerns, judging from what was voiced at a Planning Board meeting about the issue last month, mischaracterize the ranch’s operations, exaggerating its traffic, inventing bus trips and festivals that don’t really exist, at least not nearly to the extent feared, and portraying the non-profit operation as a big money-maker charging up to $1,000 for a set of classes. (In fact, and in keeping with the ranch’s policy of never turning anyone away who wants to have therapy, most riders’ classes are underwritten by scholarship. The ranch operates mostly on contributions.)
As recently as this Thursday (May 12), an anonymous letter was circulated to John Anderson Highway residents repeating malicious falsehoods about the ranch–malicious, because the falsehoods have already been publicly discredited, such as the claim that if the county were to grant the exception, then it would open the door to “group homes,” “domestic violence shelters,” “Drug/Alcohol Rehab Homes” and religious houses of worship–all patently untrue, since in every case the decision rests with the commission. The letter, scurrilous in its audacity but pointedly nameless, also repeats falsehoods about the length of times the ranch operates or about the ranch’s effects on neighboring property values, which have only increased in recent years–and are expected to post the sharpest increase in years imminently, according to Jay Gardner, the property appraiser–in tandem with values across the county. The Davises have answered the letter point by point.
The Davises and Aguirre have implored Tanner, neighbors and now county commissioners to visit, ask questions, voice their concerns, work out issues communally. Tanner visited once, as have a few neighbors, but no commissioner has been to the property. Yet on Monday evening at 5 p.m., the Flagler County Commission will hold a hearing and rule on the ranch’s semi-public use application. The decision will be a verdict on the ranch’s fate: it must either be shut down (or go elsewhere) or it’ll be allowed to continue.
In mid-April, the county’s planning board voted unanimously to recommend continued operations, with a few conditions. But the planning board’s recommendation is not binding. On the commission, the Davises are starting from behind: Commissioner Greg Hansen has already told several people, they say, that he wants the place shut down, though he hasn’t spoken to the Davises or been there. (Hansen’s wife, Linda Hansen, claimed in a phone call that Greg Hansen said no such things–and repeated as much in a comment below–but she said he would not himself confirm it or speak to FlaglerLive, a common pattern with the Hansens.)
“Ranch” is a bit of a misnomer, judging from the entrance–a modest gate with two short pillars on either side, and a dirt driveway that curves a little to the left under old oaks. You park under the trees. You walk along a thickly shaded path. Small signs by a tree or a couple of enclosures with tools and other wares suggest the local high schools’ Key Clubs have done some work here, as have Buddy Taylor Middle School’s K-Kids, the Garden Club and others. A few steps further in, you see the house, then a gate that leads behind the house to the “ranch” itself.
On a recent Friday afternoon, three children were on horses inside a pen, though you’d be hard-pressed to think of it as lessons: from 20 feet away, it’s too quiet, too serene, though that appears to be the point.
The lessons are one-on-one. There’s no screaming, no yelling, says Mary Davis, whose voice echoes the calm in the pen. You might hear a child laugh or giggle from time to time. They’re not learning to ride. They’re learning to use parts of their body, to strengthen body and mind, everything working together, depending on their condition and needs. Their actual disabilities are not necessarily known by their teachers. “That’s not what we’re here for,” Davis says. The idea is to establish a rapport between horse and rider, and to deal with the rider’s anxieties or fears, which a horse will sense. “So we try to teach them to be able to take some deep breaths, to breathe and to be able to watch the difference of the personality of the horse with them. As they calm down, the horse is calming down.
“The children as well as the adults as well as the veterans need an extremely quiet, secure place with not a lot of stuff going on, so they can concentrate, they can feel peaceful, they can feel secure.” The horses themselves are very peaceful, all trained to do their job, aware of the “precious cargo on their back, so they can be as perfect as an animal can be.”
There were claims at the planning board meeting that some of the riders could pose a risk to the neighborhood. “Our children are not dangerous,” Davis says. “You know, under disabilities, there’s mental, psychological, behavior, anger, you might want to list what the word disability means. But they’re not dangerous. They’re precious children that need help. Our veterans that come are not dangerous. I guess they weren’t too dangerous to go and put their lives on the line to protect us and our country.”
“The noise that you hear is as loud as it gets,” Davis says. At that moment, there was no more noise than the whir of a normal house’s air conditioning unit. There was a conversation in the distance, there was a bit of chirping in the trees, and if you walked up real close, you could make out the rhythmic swish of the brush on a horse’s hide, maybe–maybe–hear a slow trot if a horse is briefly walking on a harder surface than the sandy or grassy pens there their sounds are muffled. For anyone coming from Palm Coast or Flagler Beach’s busier core, the silence is arresting. “It has to be this serene atmosphere for the children and the veterans,” Davis says, “and not only that, but the parents of these children, they’ll sit here and watch their child and watch their child smile and achieve things that they never achieved before. But they also get to communicate with each other and share services that are out there that one may not know of, but the other does, and they can share these services, they can share their laughter, they share their tears, going through what they go through with those kids.”
There are crucifixes here and there along the fencing, which remind the visitor of the Christian-themed sign near the entrance, amid a small copse of plants donated by the Garden Club of Palm Coast’s Propagation Guild, that displays the ranch’s name above a white-silhouetted cutout of a horse, two children and a crucifix. “We are born-again Christians,” Davis says. “We believe in loving the people the way Christ wants us to. We don’t do any preaching. We don’t have any Bibles. We don’t have any of that. But if somebody comes in and they’ll say, Would you pray for me? Sure. Would you pray for my child? My child’s going in for surgery, my child is doing their testing and it doesn’t look good, would you pray? And of course we will pray, we’ll pray that moment if they ask or we will put them on our prayer list. It’s not a requirement for you to be a Christian to come here. We’re just here to love you the way God wants us to love you, plain and simple.”
Davis and her husband were a working couple–they had a window-treatment business for decades, where their daughter also worked–until they trained to work with disabilities and horses as PATH instructors (the acronym for Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). They loved working with children with disabilities. They started with one horse.
It’s not a horse-riding stable. It’s not open to anyone and everyone. It’s not even open to visitors who just wander in for a look-see. It’s by invitation only. “Most of the young people that show up are with a guardian, a lot of times they’re with a counselor or a medical health professional,” Dennis Bayer, the Flagler Beach attorney who represents the Davises, told the planning board last month. “Same thing with the vets that come out there. It’s not just come out and ride a horse. Typically they come to us as referrals through the school board, or through a licensed medical professional. So we don’t just allow anybody out on the property.”
The main space–what’s been referred to as the pen so far–is called the Arena, though that, too, is a misnomer: It’s about the size of two typical backyards put together, fenced in, surfaced with leveled yellow sand. Behind it is the “Round Pen” for exercising the horses a bit, once or twice a week. There’s no manure in sight, no smell detected at any point of a 90-minute visit, even when walking near the pile of manure toward the back of the property. Manure is picked up seven days a week, every day of the year. Neighbors come in and take loads for their own uses.
Off to the side the horses have their barn surrounded by a grassy enclosure where they can roam free. If they’re not working they can come and go as they please. They can huddle under the barn if it’s stormy. They have fans. “They’re just spoiled. I will admit it, but we love them,” Davis says. They have another fenced in pen where the grass grows and they can roam around twice a week. “So we try to take everything under consideration for their comfort as well because they work very hard,” Davis says. “They’re very intelligent animals. And all of them, there’s five mares, five girls.” All donated, with one exception, Star, rescued when she was 15. She’s now 27.
Niblet is the 31-year-old pony. “She’s still going, she’s a happy little pony. Kids love her because she’s small and they think that she’s a baby,” Davis says. “But she works every day just like the others.” Niblet actually went to pony college, because she had a few unacceptable wiggles and didn’t fit as perfectly as she should, given the responsibilities. When she returned from training, she did.
The barn has been an issue: “They don’t like that they can see your barn,” Aguirre was told. Ironically, if the Davises lived there with five horses (or six or seven or eight) and they had a barn, but didn’t let disabled children ride the horses during lessons, the barn wouldn’t be an issue. If the Davises happened to have an extended family, if they had a dozen grandchildren who visited every few days and rode the horses for hours at a time, it wouldn’t be an issue. If the Davises were rich and just felt like giving lessons to their friends and their children, but not take money for it, it wouldn’t be an issue.
The ranch closed in February 2020 with the onset of the pandemic and reopened in September, around the time when the property next door went up for sale. And around the time when problems started brewing, starting with a mysterious complaint the Davises heard about. “The complaint filed came as a complete blindside,” Aguirre said. “We did not know where it was coming from. And they had said that we were running a huge commercial enterprise. And then they wanted to shut us down immediately. So I didn’t know what that meant, or where that was coming from.” That was when the county’s Adam Mengel, the planning director, asked the Davises to apply for the semi-use.
There haven’t been any school buses on the property since April 2019, nor has there been an event there since November 2019, the last time the ranch hosted its country-themed Fall Festival with games and sing-alongs, plus hamburger and hot dog lunches for $2 or $3, to cover the food expenses. Contrary to false claims circulating in the neighborhood, there’s never been a band. Parking on John Anderson during the festival? That’s accurate. “We decided after that event that we would not be doing those any longer here, even though the Flagler County Sheriff came out, and they did the traffic for us,” Aguirre says. “Now, in 13 years, we’ve never had a complaint, not one neighbor has ever come to us, and Adam Mengel said they have never had a complaint or a code enforcement against them until now. So why two years after something are they coming forward? That’s what we would like to have the answer to.”
As for those school trips, they were only special education, or ESE, students–some 14 or 15 students bused in for lunch for a rare outing from school, along with their teachers. A lot of the children who’d visit are profoundly disabled, some with feeding tubes. This wasn’t a field day, exactly, but a different form of therapy. “We don’t charge them to come out here, no one gets charged, they don’t get charged to come and participate in a couple of hours with the horses,” Aguirre says. But opponents of the ranch whispered about the inappropriateness of “school buses” in and out. “So again, another misconception is school bus trips,” Aguirre says.
The planning board heard claims about fees charged. “Every child that comes here and goes through an evaluation, rides, regardless if they have funds or not.” The claim was of $30 per lesson, $1,000 for a set. The numbers aren’t inaccurate. But they were presented misleadingly. “That $30 to $1,000 is on our website as an opportunity for people to donate,” Aguirre says. “So if you want to sponsor a child or sponsor a horse, we have allocated how much it costs for us to meet our overhead. So we are allowed as a not-for-profit to charge fees. We have a lot of people that come to us and say, Hey, listen, we want to donate to sponsor a child, how much does it cost? So we’ll say, okay, we’ve in our mind have figured out it costs $30 a lesson or $40 For a private lesson to ride and we give them a figure. If you want to sponsor a child for an entire year, this is what it costs. That’s not what we charge people when they come here. It clearly states on there, a scholarship. Everybody is accepted into the program. The majority of these kids don’t pay. The ones that do pay are coming from a Gardener Scholarship through the State of Florida, which is for children with special needs. And then also Medicaid pays for 10 sessions a year, for an entire year, so that’s not very much. So then we let those kids continue on after their Medicaid is up, and they continue on through the rest of the year.”
In sum, 80 percent of the ranch’s income is from donations. “I really hope here we can get it worked out. We’re trying to reach out to people,” Aguirre says. “We’re trying to say listen, what can we do? What can we do to make sure that we are not upsetting the neighborhood?”
Aguirre is troubled by some county commissioners already voicing their intentions of denying the ranch’s exception. “I’m not going to be able to change somebody’s mind if they’re openly saying that in public. And they’re going to vote how they’re going to vote,” she says. “I just hope and pray that they at least look at this fairly, because they’re not looking at it fairly right now. How can you judge something when you’ve never been there? You’ve never stepped foot on the property? It’s really a beautiful program. I’m very proud of what it has done for the community. And I’m proud of all these volunteers that come and help us every day. We couldn’t do it without them. We’re one of the few places in Flagler county where people can come and actually volunteer. I have kids come out here from school saying, ‘I didn’t know where else I could volunteer, I love coming out here and getting community service hours.’ So it’s not just about serving these kids with special needs. It’s serving the community as a whole, and you’re going to take a lot away. You’re not going to take away just horseback riding.”