If negotiations between Whispering Meadows Ranch’s owners and county government officials continue on the constructive course they’ve followed for the last few weeks, the ranch appears headed out of its 14-year location at a residential property on John Anderson Highway and will be recreated on the grounds of the Flagler County Fairgrounds off of County Road 13.
That won’t happen for many months yet. But if and when it does, the ranch will be in a partnership with the county, which would provide the grounds at nominal or no cost, with the assurance of a long-term lease.
Mary Helene and Richard Davis, who own the property, have run the ranch with their daughter Kristen Aguirre for 14 years as the county’s only equine therapy n on-profit, allowing veterans who suffer from PTSD, children with special needs including physical and mental challenges, to get therapy at low or no cost (no one needing lessons is turned away, with scholarships underwriting enrollment). The ranch’s modest operation drew no complaints until late last year when the unbuilt lot next door was up for sale and John Tanner, a close neighbor, joined by some other neighbors, objected to the non-profit operating as a business in a residential neighborhood. The county administration required the Davises to apply for a semi-public use permit to enable them to continue the operation, assuming the County Commission approved the permit.
The application turned into a lightning rod for opponents and supporters of the ranch. The ranch’s survival was at stake. What had become a beloved and unquestioned local institution, embraced by numerous other non-profits, service organizations, the Sheriff’s Office and the School Board, was suddenly a controversial “business.” The shock blindsided the Davises and Aguirre, who have since toiled to save the ranch. The controversy got its first broad, public airing at a county Planning Board meeting in April, the first step where the required application for a public use was heard. The board recommended approval of the application, with restrictions. But the recommendation is non-binding. The decision rested in the County Commission’s hand the following month. (See: “Whispering Meadows Ranch’s Fate Hangs on a County Commission Vote Monday After 14 Years of Serene Service.”)
By then the controversy had drawn enough attention, with the ranch drawing an outpouring of support, that the county administration entered into negotiations with the Davises to find a compromise. The county proposed moving the ranch to one of two locations: the land at the fairgrounds, or land the county acquired not long ago along Old Dixie Highway. The Davises favored the land by the fairgrounds. The commission agreed to delay hearing the application item when it was on its May 14 agenda.
On Monday, Commissioner Andy Dance proposed tabling the matter again until the commission’s July 12 meeting (the commission meets only once this July), as details of the move to the fairgrounds require several steps to be fulfilled. The commission agreed.
“If we’re proceeding with that, it looks like every step is heading in that direction,” Adam Mengel, the county’s planning director, said.
The fairgrounds site’s lease needs approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which leases the grounds to the county. The county would have to amend its management plan of the fairgrounds to account for the use of the property for equine purposes. The County Commission would have to approve a semi-public use of the grounds (a step not dissimilar from the one the county was requiring of the ranch on the John Anderson property). There would also have to be some physical work on the grounds such as building the horse pens, adding utilities and a driveway, a barn and caretaker housing. “So those steps, many of which would not be able to be completed, certainly in the next two weeks, but we want to get closer with those,” Mengel said. He said the semi-public use application would be brought before the commission “in the next few months,” with the next update in July as to “whether or not that site is viable as a consideration.”
Commissioners have yet to visit the ranch itself. They said they’ve driven by the property and received emails about it, or walked the adjacent property, but not met with the ranch owners.
Commissioner Dave Sullivan wanted the Dance motion to include a sense that, as he described it, “we’re headed for what we feel will be a mutually agreeable decision. And that may help overall the people on John Anderson Parkway, the other members who are involved with this, to feel that there is a solution in the offing, and that the services that are currently provided will continue until that decision is finalized.” Dance found that amendment too long, and said the commission’s action makes Sullivan’s clarification implicit.
Dennis Bayer, the attorney representing the ranch, said negotiations have happened “in good faith,” with an apparent solution ahead. “I think we made a lot of progress since last time we were here, and we will continue to work with them,” he said of county staff. It isn’t an absolute given that the two sides will agree to the Fairgrounds proposal. But it’s heading that way, judging from Bayer’s summation: “We didn’t come prepared to get into the pros and cons of the proposal but I can give you my word that we will continue to work with your staff to find a good solution.”
Meanwhile the ranch has radically altered its normal operations on John Anderson. Kristen Aguirre updated the commission on the ranch’s summer programs and activities. All horesemanship activities are limited to a couple of mornings a week for two hours. All summer camp activities are cancelled. “By canceling this it’s affected about 40 to 50 children who are not participating in these activities,” Aguirre said. (The ranch works closely with the county’s Guardian ad Litem program, which oversees and advocates for abused or abandoned children dependent on the court system.) All community group service projects have also been cancelled, including a horse show for children with special needs, various service clubs’ visits to the ranch and Girl Scout and Boy Scout involvements.
“I wanted to share this with you for two reasons,” Aguirre said. “One, the reach of this program goes way beyond serving these kids, and the community wants to be a part of something that creates a positive impact and they found this to be true through our projects and activities that they create for these families. We do have a really wonderful and giving community. We really want to take care of this. So let’s work together, and let the community give back. The other thing is we did this to clear our schedule completely to work with the county. We have made ourselves readily available to the staff to meet and start discussions. We’ve made this our top priority, and I hope that the county is going to make this a top priority too so we can come to a solution, and continue this program in this county.”
John Tanner, the representative of the group of residents who have opposed the ranch’s continued operations at the John Anderson location, supported the tabling of the issue and the continued work toward a solution that would move the ranch to a different location. “We have a significant interest obviously in what goes on in our deed-restricted community,” he said “Any business whatsoever violates the restrictive covenants and the restrictions of record.” He spoke again in opposition to granting and sort of special use allowance for the ranch at that location. That special use, or semi-public use, document is still in play. Theoretically the commission could approve it, allowing the ranch to stay where it is. That appears unlikely.
The last word at Monday’s meeting, before the 5-0 vote tabling the matter until July, went to a parent whose child has been a student at the ranch for many years.
“This program has worked wonders for this child,” Christina Blackburn, her voice breaking, told commissioners, with her son standing next to her. “He shouldn’t be standing here today. But he is, because of the Davises. So I hope and I pray that you guys do your best to work with both parties and make this happen. Because this child depends on that ranch. And without that ranch, he’s not going to be able to know what to do because his county doesn’t have anything else for him to do.”