Clark County backs plan to promote development around horses

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County commissioners approved an equestrian plan Tuesday with the hopes of hitching some of its economic future to the nearly 29,000 horses roaming the county.

The plan sets rules for developing grouped residential areas with riding arenas, trails and stables. It also allows residents to apply for overlay zones on their properties that designate specialized equestrian use.

At Tuesday's public hearing, county staff and members of an county equine advisory group said the new rules are a foundation necessary to create a unique economic boon to the county.

"This is just the beginning," said county planner Laurie Lebowsky. "We have an active equestrian community, and right now they have asked for recognition and support of that equestrian community. I think a lot of (what happens next) depends on the equestrian community and what they want to do next. The ball is in their court."

One idea proposed for the future came from Norm Welsh, an equestrian who was interviewed by county staff as it developed the plan.

Welsh told commissioners the new rules should allow for a niche development opportunity, and described a hypothetical scenario where Camp Bonneville has become a robust county park. Welsh said a property owner with 100 acres near the park could opt to avoid developing their land into a strictly residential zone.

"What if he sold it to a developer for an equestrian center," Welsh said. "With it backed up to Bonneville park … what an economic driver that could be."

Butch Reynolds, advisory group member and president of the Clark County Executive Horse Council, said that vision is one example of what it will take to create the bigger picture.

"What we are hoping to be able to do is connect pockets like that together," Reynolds said. "Equestrian communities are like the up-and-coming golf course communities of the future. We want to show this is viable."

The overlay zone serves as a way to spread word through the region that certain communities want to have inherent ties to equestrian use. The zone isn't binding, but it should serve as a notice to expanding cities that a neighborhood wants to keep horse use legal.

"The biggie is that, while it doesn't actually protect the homeowner from losing their right to have that property use there, it creates an unlikelihood it would be taken away," Reynolds said. "What we are trying to do with the overlay is to protect property owners from getting pulled into an urban growth boundary and losing their rights on that property."

The long-term goal of the plan is to improve both current equestrian opportunities and attract equestrians from outside the area. Traveling horse lovers could boost the economy by participating in local events and perhaps by purchasing land of their own for equestrian use.

The new rules won't come at a cost to the county. The overlay zone requires an application process but comes with a $10,000 price tag for applicants. Lebowsky said both staff and the ad hoc group recognize the number is high, but said the designations are for the most serious of interested developers of equestrian land.

Reynolds said entire communities could band together to get multiple properties designated under one decision, lowering the cost per person.

And while the document calls for a number of trail improvements, recommends developing a new equestrian park and suggests providing fee reductions and other incentives for equestrian-related business, none of that is binding to the county, Lebowsky said.

The real impact comes in clarifying the rules for development and in the county recognizing its desire to improve the economy around equine activities.

"I haven't found anywhere else in the county where somebody tried to tackle this on an unincorporated countywide basis," said Cheryl Manford, a member of the board which drafted the plan. Manford said even though the language in the plan may be basic now, she can "see it as a cornerstone" to future progress.

Commissioners approved the plan with a 2-0 vote. Commissioner Tom Mielke was absent from the meeting.

Both commissioners Marc Boldt and Steve Stuart praised the plan before voting.

Boldt said he is pleased to see a possible use for some of the county's "marginal" soils, while Stuart praised potential agricultural, business and crop production implications stemming from a robust equine business environment.