It may be a bittersweet end: the largely manufactured controversy that has surrounded Whispering Meadows, the equine therapy ranch off of John Anderson Highway, since late last year may be approaching an end, as is the 14-year history of the ranch at that rustic and secluded location on its owners’ private property, adjacent to their home of long date. But the ranch may live on, albeit in a different location donated by county government, on the grounds of the county fairgrounds off of County Road 13.
That’s according to a three-page agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, county government and Whispering meadows crafted, and that will be submitted to the County Commission Monday morning for commissioners’ approval. The agreement is only the first of several steps, including a few critical ones, that have yet to be fulfilled. Beyond the current agreement, the two sides, and particularly the ranch’s owners, will have to agree to the terms of a long-term partnership agreement with the county. Those terms have yet to be spelled out, and won’t be until other steps are fulfilled.
In essence, the agreement the county would approve on Monday will give the two sides at least until the end of the year to work out the details of a permanent settlement, the culmination of which would be the ranch’s move to the fairgrounds. Meanwhile, the ranch remains on John Anderson.
The potential resolution was the result of sometimes-frantic negotiations between county officials and Whispering meadows’ attorney, Dennis Bayer, following an outpouring of public support for the ranch–a non-profit–after revelations that some of its neighbors were seeking to shut down its operations. The neighbors, led by former State Attorney John tanner, argued that the ranch was operating as a business in a residential area, which was accurate, and that it was hurting neighboring property values, emanating smells, noise and disruptions, which was not.
But the neighbors were incontestably correct when they said that the ranch at 5011 John Anderson Highway had been operating outside the county’s regulations, which required the ranch to secure a special permit in order to operate–a permit it should have secured 14 years ago. No one from the county ever told the ranch that it needed the permit and no one complained–until the small ruckus late last year. That led the county to require the ranch to apply for the special permit, which would have had to be approved by the county commission. Along the way, and even though the planning board recommended approval of the permit (with conditions), the surge of public support for the ranch led county officials negotiate with the ranch about moving it to one of two sites: either county-owned land off of Old Dixie Highway, or the county-leased land at the fairgrounds. The latter won out.
The site, according to the agreement, is state-owned and leased to the county through the Department of Environmental Protection. So the county has yet to request approval from the state to use a portion of the land as an equine therapy ranch, but that approval is not expected to be problematic. The county will then amend the management plan of the grounds, in conjunction with the state, again a routine requirement when state lands are in play. The Flagler County school district’s Future Farmers of America use a portion of it for educational purposes, so the joint agreement between the county and the district will have to be amended to accommodate the ranch.
“The County will provide central water and wastewater infrastructure and electrical power to part of the Ranch’s future Site that is closest to the existing utility infrastructure,” the agreement states. “The County may install a water well and onsite sewage disposal system if the installation of central water and wastewater infrastructure is not feasible.”
And the ranch will ironically still have to apply for a semi-public use permit, similar to the one it was applying for regarding the John Anderson Highway property. The application will “not be unreasonably denied,” the agreement states, but it “may be reasonably conditioned to account for impacts of the Ranch’s operations on the surrounding area. As part of the semi-public use application, the Ranch will submit a conceptual site plan.” But the requirement begs the question: if the county is willing to approve the semi-public use at the fairgrounds, why not on John Anderson?
Once the semi-use permit is approved, the ranch and the county will craft a long-term partnership agreement spelling out each side’s responsibilities. Any “vertical” construction–as opposed to infrastructural–on the site will be the ranch’s responsibility.
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