Nobody seems to know for sure just how many cows the Whelan Dairy has been home to during the last 85 years or so. The dairy's managers claim that there have always been about 1,100 cows on the land, while neighbors insist that recent additions have nearly tripled the size of what was once a modest-sized herd.
But everyone who has been near the place lately agrees on one thing: It stinks.
And that's why dozens of folks who live near the dairy just east of Oceanside in the San Luis Rey River Valley packed the county Board of Supervisors' chambers on Wednesday. They came to fight the dairy's effort to legitimize the size of the herd at its current level.
The neighbors won. Sort of.
The board voted unanimously, with Supervisor Leon Williams absent, to reject Whelan's request for a zoning change that would have removed all limits on the size of the dairy's herd. Technically, the dairy is limited to 327 head, and county supervisors vowed Wednesday to enforce that limit.
But none of the residents who have organized against the dairy left Wednesday's meeting feeling smug. They know it will probably be years, if ever, before the county forces the dairy to reduce the herd.
"I doubt very much if you're going to get this dairy down by just talking to them," said Lewis Kintz, a leader of the residents' group. "What they've done, more or less, is postpone it."
The board left the dairy the option of applying for a special permit that could legalize the current herd, subject to certain conditions. The Whelan people wouldn't say Wednesday whether they intend to apply for such a permit, but if they do it's unlikely that any enforcement will take place.
"If they file for a permit, that would stay any enforcement while it's being processed," said Randy Hurlburt, deputy director of the county's Department of Planning and Land Use.
Deputy County Counsel Lewis Zollinger said he would not advocate taking the dairy to court in an effort to seek an order to reduce the herd.
"Our advice would be not to force it," Zollinger said. "A judge would just say (the dairy) has already filed an application trying to legitimize it. And I think that's reasonable."
But to Kintz and others who live near the 323-acre farm, the county's action, or lack of it, has been anything but reasonable.
The residents say the manure odor gets so bad, especially in the evening, that they can't sit out on their patios without being sickened. They say they no longer invite friends over for barbecues because they're so embarrassed by the smell. And they say the stench permeates their homes and sticks to their furniture.
Kintz and officials from the City of Oceanside contend that the Whelan herd has grown from about 380 cows in 1979, to 730 in 1983, and 1,143 today.
But Lawrence Doherty, a spokesman for the dairy, said the farm has always had roughly the same number of cows it has today. Doherty said smaller numbers reported in public records in the past reflected only portions of the herd, such as beef cattle or milk-producing cattle.
And Doherty said the always-present odor worsened recently when Whelan Lake, which collects runoff from the dairy and treated sewage from Oceanside, became so polluted that its natural processes stopped, making the lake septic. Doherty contends that the septic condition lasted only a few days and that the odor from the lake has since subsided.
The state Regional Water Quality Control Board has scheduled a hearing on that issue for Feb. 10.
To Doherty, the dispute is yet another chapter in San Diego County's ongoing struggle to accommodate agriculture even as urban development moves into areas once rural.
"This is probably a classic example of how urban development encroaches onto agricultural land," he said. "For the past 85 years the operators of the dairy have been exactly where they are today."
He said the people who built homes near the dairy, and the Oceanside City Council that approved those homes, should have considered whether residential development there would be appropriate.
"You don't close the freeway because there's a house built too close to it," added Mark Linman, a land planner working for Whelan as a consultant. "It's the same way with the dairy."