Prompted by an outpouring of support for Whispering Meadows Ranch, the equine-therapy non-profit that’s operated on a property off John Anderson Highway for nearly 14 years, Flagler County government and Whispering Meadows have been in discussions through the weekend to resolve the recent conflict that’s pit the ranch’s fate in jeopardy.
The county is delaying the hearing that had been scheduled for this evening’s County Commission meeting, where the commission was to decide whether to grant the ranch a special exception to keep its operation on John Anderson, or force it to end operations there. The five-horse operation is on a property owned by Mary Helene and Richard Davis, who have lived at the property for 22 years.
The talks are centering on possibly moving parts of the operation to nearby lands. The county is proposing two parcels to Whispering meadows.
“It seems as if multiple parties have been in discussions, the land owners, the adjacent land owners, and I believe the intent is to want to continue that item and move it forward a few weeks to a time certain,” County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said at the beginning of an unrelated commission workshop this morning.
“We worked through the weekend with both parties, Al and I,” County Administrator Jerry Cameron said, referring to County Attorney Al Hadeed. “We moved very close to an agreement. There may be an opportunity for public private partnership with the county to provide what’s a very needed service. We’re working on those details. We think we would have that resolved within a couple of weeks.”
The ranch provides horse therapy to veterans who suffer from such conditions at Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other ailments, and especially to children who suffer from a variety of disabilities. Whispering meadows is run by the Davises and their daughter, Kristine Aguirre, along with a corps of volunteers.
Both sides right now are speaking of the talks in positive, confident terms. “It was a good discussion and we want to move forward,” Aguirre said. The discussions took place between the county and Dennis Bayer, the Flagler Beach attorney who has long represented the ranch. “It would be for a very, very long-term lease.” Aguirre said the county has set a 30-day timetable to try to resolve the issue. “We would obviously have some terms that have to benefit us. We’re not going to do it just to appease the county.” (Monday evening, the commission scheduled the hearing on the issue for its June 7 meeting.)
Aguirre sought to assure clients of the ranch that in any case, “We’re not going to be moving in six months. We need time.” But, she noted of the county, “I get the feeling that they ant to work with us.”
The ranch has been adopted by numerous non-profits around the county, including Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, and has worked in close concert with the school district over the years as a place both for students to log community service hours and for special education students to visit periodically.
Late last year, as the next-door property was on the market, a small group of residents raised concerns that the ranch was operating as a business in a residential zone, and sought to shut down the operation, or have it move elsewhere. The county then required the ranch to apply for what’s called a “semi-use permit” that, if granted, would have allowed the organization to continue operating at 5011 John Anderson Highway. The county’s planning board in mid-April recommended granting the permit, with a few conditions. But the recommendation was not binding on the commission, where the decision could have gone either way.
At the planning board, attorney John Tanner, a nearby-neighbor of the ranch and a leader of the opposition to its continuing operations at that location, had, with others, suggested that the ranch could move to places such as the county fairgrounds or the Agriculture Museum at the north end of the county, proposal that the Davises consider unfeasible. The quiet of the location off John Anderson is integral to the therapy.
“We will make sure this is a benefit to our program,” Aguirre said. “We will not be pressured into anything.”