Whispering Meadows Ranch, the equine therapy non-profit that’s been looking for a new home for over two years, closed on a 9-acre tract in Ormond Beach, along State Road 40 just south of the Flagler County line, and will leave its John Anderson Highway location over the next two years.
The new ranch will rise near the Rima Ridge area and development, which straddles the Flagler-Volusia county line, on land zoned for agricultural uses and single-family homes.
“We are pleased to announce the acquisition of nearly nine acres in Ormond Beach to expand our reach and help meet the ever-increasing demand for services for those with special needs,” Helene Davis, co-founder and CEO of Whispering meadows, was quoted as saying in a release issued Friday. “We have been serving hundreds of individuals each year, but demand for services has grown beyond what we are able to accommodate at our current location. This new location will allow us to help meet this ever growing need.”
The release made no mention of the conflict that prompted the ranch’s search for new land, and that nearly had it move to the Flagler County fairgrounds, until the state vetoed the move.
Owned by Mary Helene and Richard Davis for 16 years and operated to general acclaim by them and Kristine Aguirre, their daughter, at their 5.4-acre property at 5011 John Anderson Highway, the ranch almost two and a half years ago became the target of some neighbors’ criticism because it was out of compliance with local zoning.
Neighbors led by former State Attorney John Tanner consider Whispering Meadows a business. The county requires non-profits of the sort to apply for and receive approval for semi-public use of their property. The county had allowed te ranch to operate without that process for a decade and a half. The ranch is invisible from John Anderson Highway. It operates very quietly and cleanly, providing therapy to children and adults with disabilities and to veterans. The only attention it would draw over the years was from its supporters and from other non-profits who partnered with the ranch, including the Flagler County school district, local law enforcement and churches (the ranch is run as a Christian organization).
In late 2020, some neighbors, prompted by a prospective buyer of the adjacent land (that sale fell through, but the land has since been sold), objected to the ranch continuing to operate in their midst. Dennis Bayer, the attorney who has long represented Whispering Meadows, filed the necessary paperwork. A public hearing before the county planning board drew an outpouring of ranch supporters and led the board to recommend approval of the special use. But the County Commission tabled the application as its then-administrator, Jerry Cameron, proposed moving the ranch to acreage at the county fairgrounds.
That plan appeared to be a go, with the county all but sealing the deal in February 2022. It was premature. Cameron had put the county’s carts before the ranch’s horses, leaving it to his successor to discover a year later that the state Division of Environmental protection stopped the lease arrangement. The state objected to the ranch operating as a private entity on public land. Flagler County offered the ranch other options, and the Davises themselves shopped around, but nothing was adequate to the ranch’s needs–until the discovery of the acreage along State Road 40.
The deal closed Friday. The purchase price for the land at 3310 West State Road 40 has not been disclosed yet. The property includes a house and three smaller structures. It is mostly woodland, its layout very similar to the property on John Anderson Highway, but nearly double its size. The property affords the ranch operation the same sense of semi-isolation and serenity that prevails on John Anderson. The property’s just market value, according to the Volusia County Property Appraiser’s website, is listed as $465,188, slightly down from the 2022 value but 48 percent higher than it was two years ago.
“They’re definitely celebrating,” Bayer said of the Davises on Friday. “It’s been a long process. We did notify the county today. We thanked them for all their assistance over the last two years.”
The release the ranch issued on Friday referred to an “expansion” to the Ormond Beach site. In fact, it is a relocation, Bayer confirmed: the John Anderson location will no longer operate as part of Whispering Meadows, at least not with horses.
“I don’t think the word ‘expansion’ meant anything. The goal is to move the operation to the property in Ormond Beach,” Bayer said.
In Bayer’s email to Sean Moylan, the assistant county attorney who’s been handling the issue on behalf of the county, Bayer wrote: “The site is readily accessible to the public and has some of the facilities needed. There will need to be significant improvements made before the operation will be able to open at the new location.” Moylan said he had not been made aware of the release’s reference to a two-year stretch until the operation has fully moved to the new location.
“We hope to begin work immediately and expect it will take 2 years to prepare the new property for activities,” Davis was quoted as saying in the release which added that “in the meantime, services will continue at the Ranch’s current Flagler Beach location.”
That worries Tanner. “The idea the grounds have to be prepared and some full pasture in place and all that just doesn’t sound reasonable, ” Tanner said today. “These horses have not had that type of treatment before, they can be fed the way they’ve always been fed.” He said the current facility doesn’t have a barn for the horses so much as covered stalls. The operation, in his view, can be dismantled and reassembled as is.
Tanner said the opposition to the ranch was never against the mission, which he said is admirable and necessary, but only against the location. Allowing the ranch to operate there would open the door to other businesses in the area. Neither he nor the county have made clear how that would happen since the exception would in every case depend on affirmative action by the county, leaving it to the county’s discretion to decide what goes in and what does not. On the other hand, the county may have been fearful of any preferential decision tested legally.
“It’s a win-win for them but I don’t know–in fact I know, two years is absolutely unreasonable, they’ve had two years already, and they really need to move,” Tanner said. But he is leaving it up to the county to set a deadline or a timeline that would be considered reasonable. “We’ve been very very tolerant, very patient, but there is a limit,” he said.
Bayer said the transition will take time, but may not require two years. He said Whispering meadows is starting a fund-raising campaign, and will rely on volunteers to help prepare the site.
For the county, the resolution of the Whispering meadows Ranch issue after a two-year ordeal is a relief, though county officials may this time be careful not to consider the matter settled, as they had when the fairgrounds acreage looked like the end of it.