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Trotting Into Extinction? : Horsemanship: Caught between the squeeze of development, cost of water and high insurance rates, many North County stables are riding into the sunset, with the land up for sale. Others are hanging on and hoping for the best.

May 10, 1990|JANET LOWE

The neighbors complained about the horsy smells and noises, and the riding trails were poorly planned and maintained, Beverly DeWitt says. Then the cost of water pushed the $4,000-a-month mark.

"We aren't on an agricultural rate," says DeWitt, owner of Rancho Bernardo Riding Club, a commercial stable and boarding facility. "We have to pay the same as everyone else."

So DeWitt has joined the ranks of many other North County stable owners by putting her 35 acres up for sale.

Dwindling open space, complaints from suburban neighbors, massive insurance rate increases and, yes, even the cost of water have compelled the owners of many North County stables to close or move. This in an area that once was a horse lover's fantasy of riding stables and trails.

All Michele Anderson wants is what she's doing: living on a ranch and training horses. As modest as that ambition might seem, the manager of Clover Hill Ranch in Oceanside also sees what she loves best in life slipping away.

"There is a new housing development going in that will block our access to the San Luis river," Anderson said. "We mostly ride on our trail, but to get a ride of any length, you have to go to the river. That's the only place we can go."

The problems are more complex than development itself. Residents who buy homes in North County for the rural atmosphere often find that living near livestock has more the smell of manure than the scent of romance. They complain to stable owners and sometimes to city councils about the odor and noise, pressuring the stables to take what can be expensive steps to be more acceptable neighbors.

Insurance rates for hourly rides escalated so sharply in recent years--up to $20,000 a year--that renting a horse has become an extinct pastime. Ten years ago, there were as many as 20 North County stables where horses could be rented. Now the phone listings show no rental stables in North County and only a handful countywide.

In addition, new houses bring cars and dogs that spook horses.

Clover Hill Ranch will soon lose part of its property to a road when Melrose Drive is cut through to meet Mission Avenue, part of a housing tract planned by Pacesetter Homes. A shopping center is planned for the opposite corner.

Anderson says Clover Hill's owner is lobbying for an underpass or overpass so that horses can cross the new street. However, an ordinary crossing, perhaps with a light and push-buttons to activate a red light for crossing, is expected.

Since moving to San Diego in 1971, Barbara Gerrior, owner of Horseman's Park in the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, says the decline in riding stables has been easy to notice.

Particularly at risk now, Gerrior said, are the equine facilities in and near North City West. Landlords who can get more money with houses than horses, and neighbors who complain to authorities, can make staying open a constant struggle.

"They're goners," she said. "You can fight for a while, but, if you don't have money to keep going, you lose."

The owners of Clark's Ranch, tucked in the hills between North City West and Penasquitos, know that.

Jim and Audrey Clark bought their ranch on Black Mountain Road 12 years ago. They board about 60 horses on 11 acres, give lessons and allow boarders to ride their horses on whatever trails are left. Despite some attempt to maintain trails in the county, Audrey Clark says there are few places left to ride in her area.

When the Clarks moved into the area 12 years ago, there were fewer than 400 residents living among the fields and canyons. Now, in North City West alone, there are more than 10,000. "I'm pretty upset about it," said Audrey Clark. "There's always pressure (to sell). If I get crowded out, I get crowded out. I hate to see that happen. This has been a life's dream. But it looks like I'll get wiped out."

Tempting offers from developers have come her way, she said, at the same time that trails are diminishing, making riding less of a pleasure.

There now is only one operating ranch along Carmel Valley Road; several others have closed or moved, the land now on the market. "For Sale" signs dot the fields that remain between the new North City West neighborhoods. In one field, a horse trailer and other equestrian equipment near a barn sport a "For Sale" placard too.

DeWitt, the Rancho Bernardo Riding Club owner, says that being in a neighborhood that was marketed on its appeal to riders is no guarantee that horses are welcome.

Her spread is an oasis of well-tended fields, fences and barns, flanked on three sides by seas of suburban tract housing.

"We get a lot of complaints from homeowners," she said. "They don't like the smell. I've had people call me up in the middle of a Santa Ana wind and ask if we can't put deodorant on the manure. They don't like the flies. The horses get bored sometimes and bang on the pipe fences. The neighbors don't like the noise."

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