NORCO — This rural Riverside County town seems to embrace everything equestrian: Witness the hitching posts at McDonald's, horse-crossing signs at every busy corner, and the hay and grain stores that outnumber muffler shops.
Now, a private developer is proposing a $35-million harness racing track--the first in California dedicated to sulkies--where Interstate 15 crosses the Santa Ana River.
The project seems to be on the fast track for approval at City Hall, where officials say it is a logical addition to Norco's equestrian lifestyle. But critics worry that it will harm their treasured small-town ambience, damage the river, create traffic problems and noise, and bring gambling to the community.
"This simply isn't racetrack country," said Katie Schroeder, who works behind the counter at Linda's Feed and Supplies on 6th Street. "Here, you go out to the backyard, grab your horse and ride the trails to meet friends."
Her boss is worried too. "The city could use an increased tax base, but a lot of people don't want the [negative] impact the track will have," said Linda West. "Norco is a very protective town. We already have enough traffic problems, with people riding horses on trails alongside roads where cars go speeding by."
Concerns also are being raised by Orange County Water District officials, who worry that runoff from the track and its parking lots would harm the Santa Ana River, the single largest source of Orange County's drinking water. Other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Fish and Game, have yet to weigh in.
Leading the cheers for the racetrack is Mayor Frank Hall, who, like each member of the City Council, is a horse owner.
"A harness-racing track will add to our distinction, as another equestrian amenity," he said.
The track is proposed by Frank Cossey, whose Brea-based, privately held company, TLC America, buys and sells commercial and residential real estate. An owner of racehorses and greyhounds, Cossey said races would be run 22 to 28 weeks a year, with off-track satellite wagering available on site year-round.
Cossey, who said he will pony up 70% of the investment, said the Silverlakes Racing & Entertainment Center would feature a seven-eighths-mile track, bleachers and a clubhouse with a restaurant rising to the height of a three-story building. Up to 4,000 people, 2,000 vehicles and 750 horses could fit on the grounds.
During non-racing weekends, the facility could be used for horse and car shows and other community events, he said.
Why Norco? "Because it already has the horse ambience, and location is everything," Cossey said. "There are tracks in Arcadia, Inglewood, Los Alamitos and Del Mar, but nothing in the Inland Empire."
Harness races now run part time at only two tracks in California: at Los Alamitos and in Sacramento. "It will give the city of Norco something to hang its hat on, a great place for entertainment," Cossey said.
The mayor dismissed concerns about the track's impact on the community.
"When people think about racetracks, they think about Santa Anita or Hollywood Park--big thoroughbred tracks," Hall said. "Harness racing has a lot less impact, and when you look at the impacts of growth all around us, and the traffic that it's bringing in already, this will pale by comparison."
He said that businesses will profit from visitors to town and that the city will reap new tax revenue as well as an unspecified share of the track's proceeds.
Hall said he is not concerned about possible environmental damage to the Santa Ana River, which runs along the south side of the track site. The facility would be constructed just west of I-15 and east of its major frontage road, Hamner Avenue.
"The area they're looking at is not pristine. It's not an endangered species habitat," the mayor said. "It's an area that has been used for years for recreation and horses. It's been so heavily impacted already, they could just as well pave it by now. Any problems can be mitigated."
City officials did not order a full environmental impact report on the project, summarily declaring that it will not have any significant negative effects.
That notion infuriates others, who say the city and Cossey are running roughshod over environmental concerns that need to be addressed in greater detail.
Among the critics is the staff of the Orange County Water District, which manages the river and the ground-water basin it feeds, supplying 2 million county residents with about 75% of their water.
William R. Mills Jr., the agency's general manager, wrote Norco City Hall last month arguing that a thorough environmental review is needed because "of the clear potential for serious impact to water resources and the surrounding environment."
The agency is worried about the facility's impact on flood waters and on the Santa Ana sucker--a river fish that federal authorities recently listed as threatened.
County Is Skeptical