Rick Balthaser came to be a horseman relatively late in life, moving from Orange Hills to Trabuco Canyon so he and his wife could keep horses on their half-acre property.
At age 57, he has found riding a horse to be both a blessing and a vanishing way of life. And like many of his fellow horse lovers in Orange County, he is saddling up for another showdown.
“Where once there was open space, it’s now just seas and seas of homes, and to me that’s not what Orange County is about,” he said. “I have a 2-year-old granddaughter. I want to see her be able to keep a horse on her property. It will be amazing to see that in Orange County.”
Seasoned after years of battle as stables across the county have been impacted by development, the county’s equestrian community is looking south at Coto Valley Equestrian Center.
Oak Grove LLC, a Newport Beach developer, wants to level 14 percent of the equestrian center so it can build 18 homes. Though Oak Grove is pledging to improve the remaining 25-acre facility, some residents aren’t buying it.
Silver Bronze Corp., which runs the equestrian center and Coto’s original country club, filed a lawsuit attempting to stop the development project.
“What ultimately happens is they start to squeeze out the equestrian element,” said Ken Agid, a Silver Bronze board president and horseman himself.
“I’m glad I’m 70, because by the time I’m looking upward from a comfortable bed of ground, I don’t think there will be very many horses left in Orange County.”
A TRAIL OF CLOSURES
When Marc Hedgpeth moved to Orange County from Northern California in 1969, the county was still very rural, with much of its open space used for grazing cattle.
He saw cowboys and people riding horses across fields not only on ranches in south Orange County but even in Yorba Linda and Fullerton, Hedgpeth said.
Today, such a scene is available only at limited places, such as Rancho Mission Viejo and parts of San Juan Capistrano, said Hedgpeth, board president for the Equestrian Coalition of Orange County.
Because of exponential population growth and housing shortages in Southern California after World War II, bedroom communities expanded into Orange County in the 1950s and ’60s, said Chris Jepsen, assistant archivist at Orange County Archives. Farmers could make more money selling their land to developers than by continuing to farm.
People wanted to move here and wanted to raise kids here,” Jepsen said.
Urbanization continued and encroached on open space and large equestrian properties. Several thousand horse stalls were lost to real estate development from 1980 to 2005, according to an Equestrian Coalition survey.
“If you went through north Orange County, the number of stables has just been decimated over time,” Agid said.
Anaheim’s River Trails and Anaco were both shuttered. So were Huntington Beach’s Huntington Crest Stables, Four Seasons and Ocean View Stables, plus Hidden Valley Ranch in Brea, Big K Stables in Santa Ana and a dozen more.
A couple of smaller stables opened during that time, according to Janice Posnikoff, a horse veterinarian and Equestrian Coalition member. But they were nowhere near enough to offset the losses.
“We’re always on alert, especially with the private facilities,” said Theresa Sears, an Orange Park Acres resident who has helped fight closures throughout the county. “They’re always getting sold because developers come in and obviously they pay more” than the equestrian community.
The equestrian community suffered a big blow in 2006, when El Toro Stables shut down and Lennar Homes took control of much of the former El Toro Marine base. The move displaced some 450 horses, leading to long waiting lists at nearby facilities.
Equestrian groups celebrated a rare victory in 2007, as they helped defeat efforts to convert stables at the Orange County fairgrounds into a parking lot.
Then a battle flared up in Orange Park Acres. Residents got in trouble with the county for “friendly stabling,” taking in horses from owners who couldn’t find space at commercial boarding facilities. And a fight is still raging over what will become of the former Ridgeline Country Club, with a developer looking to build homes while the equestrian community fights to keep it as open space.
It didn’t help the equestrian community that the economic downturn forced some horse owners in Orange County to sell their horses or move them to lower-priced boarding facilities in Riverside County, Hedgpeth said.
Now, Posnikoff said, the county group is shifting its focus to Coto de Caza, hoping to hang onto one of the last large boarding facilities in the southeast part of the county.
COTO IN LIMBO
Oak Grove has already revised its plans several times in response to Coto residents’ concerns, according to chief financial officer Alain O’Connor. The company has reduced the number of stalls that would be impacted and increased the money dedicated to improve the remaining 25 acres, luring some longtime Silver Bronze Corp. members to support the proposal.
Some members are looking to cash out their shares amid complaints about the condition of the aging club and financial state of the corporation. O’Connor said the upgraded equestrian center would result in more than $100,000 in additional income annually.
But others see the plan to put high-priced homes next to the equestrian center as the first step in a recipe for disaster – one that horse advocates say has played out dozens of times across the county over the past few decades.
A housing project is built on the urban fringe, with the developer marketing homes as part of an equestriancommunity. People move from the cities, attracted by the rustic countryside, larger lots and the romance of seeing horses stroll down the street.
Soon, though, complaints start rolling in about flies, dust and horses doing their business as they trot down those streets. Then new developers start eying that land, knowing they can get the undeveloped lots for a bargain and make a hefty profit by building houses where stables once stood.
Horse owners, trainers, veterinarians and others are waiting anxiously to see what happens to the Coto facility. So are members of the Orange County Polo Club, which spent two years relocating to Coto after it lost its home when El Toro Stables shut down.
OPEN SPACE CAN BE ATOUGH SELL
Coto won’t go down without a fight, Agid said, because once stables are shuttered, it’s nearly impossible to get them back.
Though insiders say demand continues to grow, there’s little financial incentive to build new stables. Countless other land uses would generate more revenue. And long gone are the days when stables could be little more than rows of pipes cordoning off a patch of ground, with new legislation doubling or tripling the price.
When the Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding in San Juan Capistrano started building facilities several years ago, the organization quickly learned how much water-quality regulations would impact construction. The nonprofit organization had to install a system that captures and filters rainwater from roofs of its five buildings, plus crisscross pipes over 5 of its 7 acres to handle drainage.
“It was extremely costly to comply with these standards and it does require an additional amount of expense and upkeep to remain compliant,” said Dana Butler-Moburg, executive director of Shea Center.
Yorba Linda has been struggling for years to open its first stabling facility and large riding arena.
A team of advocates is still trying to work with the Great Park investors to incorporate horses there, Posnikoff said, to help replace the hundreds of stables lost when El Toro closed.
“All the equestrians may not be happy with all the changes that they see, but I think that the equestrians are realistic enough to understand that development and change are inevitable,” Hedgpeth said. “Either we adapt or we don't survive. We continue to have to adapt to changes.”
BY BROOKE STAGGS and TOMOYA SHIMURA
STAFF WRITERS - Orange County Register, July 14, 2014