NORWALK — As a setting sun cast long shadows on a dirt trail, a galloping horse with a lone rider gently kicked up small clumps of dust.
Next to nearby homes, corraled horses stuck their noses over fences, while chickens and geese began to settle down for the night.
This is, say residents, a special part of Norwalk. The properties running along the horse trail and an adjacent bike trail--from Alondra Boulevard to Imperial Highway--are the only horse-zoned lots in the city. Along with horses, property owners raise everything from honeybees to llamas.
The menagerie has been likened to a zoo by residents and provides one of the last remaining links with the city's agricultural past.
"Our common bond is we all love animals," said Maria Harkey, referring to neighbors on Domart Street who share the pleasures and pitfalls of keeping animals.
But Harkey and others say they are growing increasingly concerned that their way of life is being threatened.
They contend that the city is unfairly requiring them to obtain permits to keep animals on property that is specially zoned for animals. Moreover, the residents say, the provision is being unequally enforced because not every animal owner is being required to get the permits.
But city officials say they require permits to keep track of the number of animals in the city and to make sure animals are maintained. The permit acts as the "city's mechanism to make sure horses and properties are well taken care of," said Kurt Anderson, assistant planning director.
The city enforces its codes in two ways: on a complaint basis and through random inspections by city code enforcement officers. Once a complaint is received, the city is obliged to require that residents bring their properties up to code. Officials said the city does not do wholesale canvassing of all properties to see whether necessary permits have been secured by residents.
The city's code requires a permit for any horse, for some barnyard animals such as goats and pigs, or when a resident obtains more than three domestic pets, such as dogs or cats. Residents must pay a one-time fee of $150 to apply for an animal permit, which must be approved by the Planning Commission.
Maria Harkey said that when she moved in more than a year ago, she was never told she had to get a permit to keep animals.
'When Do We Stop Paying?'
"We have paid a premium for this property. When do we stop paying? We have to pay $150 more for something we already paid a high price to maintain. That's why we're up in arms," she said.
Ray Harkey says residents next to the trail have paid as much as $30,000 more for their property than they would pay for similar houses across the street because of the ability to keep animals. The residents, he said, are "common, down-to-earth people. We're more the pickup set than the Cadillac set."
The horse trail--which runs from Long Beach to Whittier and beyond--runs through Norwalk between the San Gabriel River and a narrow strip of about 130 homes, most of which are located on the west side of Domart Street.
Harkey said his neighbors often stroll the trails on weekends, showing their children the various barnyard animals. "The kids get such a big kick out of our yard," he said.
The couple--who say they have always wanted a hobby farm--keep turkeys, goats, chickens, rabbits, ducks, geese, a horse and a sheep on their 10,000-square-foot lot. "This is my vice," Maria Harkey said. "Any money I spend, I spend it on my animals."
The Harkeys were cited earlier this month for having a horse and a goat without an animal permit and maintaining a trash bin in full view.
"We thought we were getting picked on," Ray Harkey said, adding that he thinks the city has embarked upon a strategy to eventually squeeze horses out of Norwalk.
'You Nibble at Them'
"If they can knock everyone one at a time, there won't be very much said. You don't take everyone on at once. You nibble at them," Harkey said. He said the city should do one mass mailing and have everybody on the street meet code requirements.
"Then they'll all be raising hell at once," he said.
To fight back, the Harkeys and others are discussing formation of a neighborhood group and possibly asking the council to protect their life style by loosening requirements in the horse zone.
"I think the city is trying to take too many liberties with our property," Ray Harkey said. "I don't see what's so offensive about having horses and chickens."
Leroy Baca, a Domart Street resident who recently was allowed to keep 10 out of 15 beehives in the horse zone, said he knows of many neighbors who keep animals without a permit.
"We don't want to finger anybody else at all. We just want to be left alone," said Baca, who also keeps chickens and rabbits.