In December 2018, Roger Sturdevant and Robin Yeager’s purchase of 17 acres east of Woodland finally closed. The married couple had cashed out their 401(k) accounts to purchase the land, which includes more than 20 stables and large indoor and outdoor arenas, to live out Yeager’s lifelong dream of operating an equestrian business.
On the same day that the property closed, the couple contacted Clark County to obtain a permit. But the couple say that after previously being told that they would need a much less costly permit, they were then informed that they would need a different one that would require tens of thousands of dollars in fees and modifications. They say the additional costs would make their new business, R&R Equestrian Center, unfeasible.
“Happiest day of our lives to the saddest day of our lives,” Sturdevant said.
Sturdevant is one of many horse owners in Clark County pushing back against permit and code requirements for equestrian facilities and as the county responds to four active complaints. The horse aficionados spoke out at a lengthy, emotional Clark County Council meeting Feb. 18 and will participate in a public forum hosted by the county March 25.
County officials are pondering changes to the regulations. Equestrian-related business owners argue that the current code requirements are draconian. But residents who live near these businesses are concerned about impacts to neighborhoods.
Sturdevant and Yeager said that before they purchased their property in 2018, county staff had told them that they would need a Type I permit. Such a permit requires “the exercise of professional judgment about technical issues” by county staff and is typical for home occupations.
But the day the property — zoned rural — closed, Sturdevant and Yeager became aware that they would need a Type II permit, which would require about $10,000 for site plan reviews and other fees. They estimate that numerous requirements of the permit, which include overhead sprinkler systems and soundproof barns, would cost them tens of thousands of dollars more.
Previous owners also ran equestrian businesses at the property but didn’t obtain the more stringent permit, which passed the burden on to Sturdevant and Yeager.
“We’re agriculture. We’re not Walmart,” Sturdevant said. “We want to be good neighbors.”
Clark County enforces its code through a complaint-driven system. Last year, Yeager and Sturdevant’s property was the subject of two complaints. One of the complaints was dismissed, while the other has been pending for several months, Sturdevant said.
“I called (the county) up and said, ‘Your requirements are out of reach. I’m not going to do it,’ ” Sturdevant said. “It’s not just the code enforcement. They’re just doing their job. I get that. Some of the code needs to be revised, in horse owners’ opinions. It’s just not feasible.”
Some county residents who don’t own horses, though, are counting on the county Code Administration Department to address their concerns.
Dennis Forrester and Dennis Karnopp each own properties in a subdivision east of Battle Ground where a small road — about 600 feet long and 9 feet wide — is jointly owned and maintained.
Across the street from Forrester and adjacent to Karnopp is property owned by Amy and Edward Veneske. They own 10 rural acres that include a shed, barn, mobile home and three-bedroom, ranch-style house, according to county property records.
Forrester, who is retired and purchased his property with his wife in 2004, noticed a couple of years ago that his new neighbors had horses. He said he hoped to establish an amicable relationship, including visions of his grandchildren feeding and playing with the animals.
“I had a very romantic look at it,” Forrester said.
But Forrester and Karnopp said they started noticing a lot of activity at the property, which they estimate hosts more than a dozen horses at a time. Forrester and Karnopp said they were concerned that a significant uptick in traffic would damage the road and raise questions about liability if a car crashed into one of the several trees that line it. Karnopp said he’s also been bothered by noise and dust.
After approaching the Veneskes, they were not pleased with the response.
“They just, basically, rolled over us and set this (business) up,” Forrester said. “Basically, they’re just imposing their will on us.”
Forrester and Karnopp each filed complaints to the county about the property. Additionally, Forrester, who spends a significant amount of time outside doing chores, said he keeps a daily count of the number of cars that use the road. An average of 262 cars traversed the road per month in 2019, he said.
“We don’t have a problem of people with horses. We have a problem with people running a business,” Forrester said. “The folks at the county have been unfairly affected and accused of wanting to shut down these operations.”
When contacted by The Columbian, the Veneskes declined to be interviewed for this story.
County Code Administration Director Mitch Nickolds said that most complaints stem from alleged unpermitted equestrian facilities that cause noise, dust and traffic. In each of the four open cases, the county has verified violations and asked that the activity cease until permits are acquired. If the activity continues and the property owners don’t appeal, the county can issue financial penalties.
But for the time being, the county has yet to levy fines or place liens on properties.
“We are not ‘cracking down’ per se, but simply responding to valid complaints that we received when it became obvious to certain residents that there is a commercial horse boarding, riding or training facility in their neighborhood that is drawing increased traffic and/or generating dust or noise,” Nickolds wrote in an email. “The codes regulating equestrian activity on private property have been in effect for over a decade, but the conditions and commercial horse boarding, riding and training activity that generated the complaints may (have) developed more recently.”
The county code’s definition of an equestrian facility includes boarding six or more horses or hosting lessons, parties, competitions, shows and camps.
About 30,000 horses roam pastures in Clark County, according to Community Development’s website. But Alice Heller, president of the Clark County Executive Horse Council, said at the Feb. 18 meeting that the number has decreased to 20,583 due to rising costs and loss of pasture land in a growing county.
Both county staff and councilors have expressed interest in altering the equestrian section of the code. The forum on March 25 will start at 6 p.m. in the sixth-floor hearing room of the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., Vancouver.
Public comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or Attn. M. Nickolds, P.O. Box 9810, Vancouver, Wash., 98660-9810. Comments can also be delivered by hand to the third-floor reception area in the Public Service Center. Written comments will be accepted through April 3.
Sturdevant said he plans to attend the forum.
“I’m really hopeful that we will get somewhere in these meetings,” Sturdevant said. “It’ll take a long time, but I think we’ll be able to come up with something that’s agreeable for everybody.”