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News / Clark County News

Clark County horse owners decry fine threats at council meeting

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: February 19, 2020, 10:53am

Horse owners flooded the Clark County Council meeting Tuesday night over concerns about threatened fines against equestrian facilities.

The horse enthusiasts participated in a lengthy, sometimes emotional public comment period. Horse owners asked the county to require a new, less-costly permitting plan for equestrian facilities.

A letter sent Dec. 24 from the county’s Community Development department to a property owner said that they were operating an unpermitted equestrian facility that did not undergo a site plan review or receive county approval. Among the unpermitted activities listed were boarding six or more horses or hosting lessons, parties, competitions, shows and camps.

“All commercial use and/or equestrian activities, other than your personal use or use by members of the public who board their horses on your premises, providing that collectively this does not exceed five horses, must cease immediately,” the letter reads.

If the property owner didn’t “terminate all equestrian facility activity,” they would be subject to daily fines and liens. The property owner was also required to apply for a site plan review within 45 days of the letter.

Alice Heller, president of the Clark County Executive Horse Council, said at the meeting that horse owners spend more than $94 million annually — a number determined through a recent council survey of 677 respondents.

“Money from owning a horse comes back to the county through taxes and fees,” Heller said. “As Clark County has become more urbanized, less families are able to purchase enough acreage to support a horse on their own property. Often, the only way we can continue to enjoy the equine life is to utilize a boarding stable.”

Roger Sturdevant, owner of R&R Recreation Center in Woodland, said the county told him before he purchased the land that he would need a less expensive permit. After making the purchase, the county said he needed a more expensive one, he said. Sturdevant paid $3,000 for a preconference meeting, $6,600 for an impact fee and would have to pay significantly more for numerous other features such as sprinkler systems.

“We’re farmers. We don’t make money,” Sturdevant said. “We’ve had this business for a year. We have not made a dime.”

Sturdevant added that the more expensive permit would put him out of business. He and his wife cashed out their 401(k) accounts to pay for their farms because it was “her lifelong dream.”

“And now, Clark County wants to crush it,” Sturdevant said.

County Code Administration Director Mitch Nickolds said that four notices have been issued since 2018, all of which were initiated by neighbors. He added that the county has taken a number of steps to support horse owners, including an urban livestock ordinance that allows property owners in urban areas to raise farm animals and an equestrian overlay zone that allows horse owners on large farms to train and raise horses.

“Our investigations did turn up some violations,” Nickolds said. “That said, Clark County does a really good job of supporting the equestrian community, particularly through our animal protection program.”

Clark County is home to more than 30,000 horses, according to Community Development’s website. Heller, however, said the number has decreased to 20,583 due in part to rising costs and loss of pasture land.

“The council will talk about this, but I’m pretty sure that we’re probably going to come together and say, ‘We need to look at the code,’ ” Council Chair Eileen Quiring said at the end of the public comment session. “But the other way to do, to address that, is form some task force or something where we can work together.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter