Whispering Meadows Ranch, Flagler County’s equine therapy non-profit on John Anderson Highway, is a step closer to its next permanent home on the grounds of the county fairgrounds.
The County Commission today approved requesting permission from the state to sublease more than half of a 44-acre parcel at the fairgrounds to the organization for the next 30 years, with two 10-year renewals. The approval was unanimous. (See the parcel delineated in the map below the article.)
That step is not yet the lease with Whispering Meadows. That’s still ahead. But since the county fairgrounds off Sawgrass Road sit on land owned by the state, through the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, county government is required to get the state’s approval before it can execute what amounts to subletting a portion of the land to a separate organization.
The 44-acre parcel is part of the 183-acre fairgrounds property. It is a long, rectangular parcel that runs east to west, across Sawgrass Road, to County Road 13. The portion that would be leased runs west of Sawgrass Road. It is currently wooded and not actively used by the fairgrounds. The county intends to prepare the grounds for the ranch, using money it received from the American Rescue Plan Act to that end. The county received $500,000 specifically for mental health therapy. Equine therapy is mental health therapy.
Mary Helene and Richard Davis have run Whispering Meadows on their 5.4-acre property off John Anderson Highway for 14 years. They’ve lived there for 23 years. Equine Therapy is a specialized form of treatment that benefits the physical and mental health of children with disabilities or children and adults who suffer from such things as post-traumatic stress disorder. The ranch caters especially to children with disabilities in Flagler County schools and to veterans of recent wars. Participants ride horses in a large, enclosed pen, following certain serene and controlled methods, with trained therapists.
The ranch over the years has developed a close association with the school district, the Sheriff’s Office, numerous local non-profits and veterans organizations. But a few neighbors toward the end of 2020 raised objections over the ranch’s presence in back of a residential property in an area not zoned for what those neighbors termed to be a business. The ranch had never secured a so-called semi-public use exception to run the operation there, though the county had never required it, either, even though it knew well of the ranch’s presence.
In 2020, the county made that exception a requirement. It turned into a public battle between those who wanted the county to deny the exception–a decidedly small minority–and those who wanted the ranch to continue operating as it had, where it had. But rather than force a vote on the semi-public use exception, the county and the Davises entered into negotiations, through Dennis Bayer, their attorney, to consider an alternative venue. The county was willing to cede land through a long lease either at the fairgrounds or on land along Old Dixie Highway that it does not intend to use. Agreement settled on the fairgrounds. The county would provide the land at no cost. Whispering meadows would then run the operation as it would have on John Anderson, assuming all other costs.
Once the two sides had an agreement in principle, the rest has been a matter of filling in technical blanks, which are numerous and intricate, as County Administrator Heidi Petito described it today.
“This is a multi step process,” Petito said. “What you see in front of you today is just one part of the process. Staff has already requested the survey and wetland delineation. We expect that back over the next couple of weeks. We also will be submitting our application to the state for approval. That application has to go to the Division of State Lands, and that’s for use of the property. We also have a local zoning requirement, a semi-public use hearing, with our planning board, which is scheduled for December 14.”
Ironically, that’s the very same sort of semi-public use the ranch would have been seeking off of John Anderson. But in this case, it’s expected to be more of a ratification than anything else: the votes have already lined up. That’s still not all. The county has to secure a permit through the St. Johns River Water Management District. And of course Whispering Meadows has to agree to the terms of the lease specific to its operation–a separate lease than the document approved today.
“We’re currently working on the lease agreement,” Petito said. But all of that would be submitted to the County Commission on January 10, the date when Whispering meadows may be said to have a new lease on life, protected and, for all intents and purposes, permanent.
“It’s about time we’re moving forward with Whispering Pines and equine therapy,” Commissioner Greg Hansen, still confusing the ranch with the Bunnell assisted living facility, said today. “I think that’s a good, good news story for the county and for them.”
- For Whispering Meadows Ranch, a Slow But Likely Trot Away from John Anderson, to New Site at County Fairgrounds
- The Lease Document with the State
- Tabling Tonight’s Hearing, Whispering Meadows Ranch and County ‘Very Close to an Agreement’ as Talks Continue
- Whispering Meadows Ranch’s Fate Hangs on a County Commission Vote Monday After 14 Years of Serene Service
- Key Victory for Venerated Whispering Meadows Ranch as County Board Recommends in Its Favor in Emotional Hearing