Santa Ana Heights is a horse lover's dream.
Several miles of bridle trails meander through idyllic terrain. Most of the houses sit on lots large enough to accommodate animals and corrals.
Recently, however, the dream has been marred by an argument over biological realities. New signs posted on the trails warn of $100 to $500 fines for owners whose horses leave a mess. And, adding insult to injury, several houses along sidewalks and trails now sport shovels with cans.
"It's just a good-neighbor issue," says Barbara Venezia, a non-equestrian resident of one of those houses and organizer of what she calls the "adopt-a-poop-can" campaign. "The bottom line is: If you've got an animal, take care of it."
Local equestrians say they certainly don't mind taking care of their animals. But some are incensed by a municipal ordinance that treats them exactly as it does dog owners who don't clean up after their pets on the street. And in what may be the first case of its kind anywhere, horse people say they plan to show up en masse at a city hearing later this month to protest the law.
"We're challenging not only the enforcement of the code, but the code itself," said Tom Anderson, president of the Orange County Equestrian Coalition, which recently paid the fine of a woman cited for allegedly leaving her horse's manure on a sidewalk. "We've always believed this to be a nonissue. It shows a complete lack of understanding by urban people about what it means to have a horse as a pet."
Countered David Kiff, an assistant city manager in charge of enforcing the ordinance: "I can't just look the other way with horses."
The conflict has recent roots. For years, East Santa Ana Heights -- a 194-acre area made up of about 400 homes just northeast of Newport Beach -- was an unincorporated Orange County island zoned for equestrian use. Last July, in keeping with the county's efforts to rid itself of unincorporated areas, it was annexed by Newport Beach.
As a result, according to Kiff, "the community is subject to all of our ordinances," including the one requiring pet owners to clean up after their pets. Though the law is aimed primarily at dog owners, he says, "it would apply to any animal, including a horse."
The city posted the "no manure" signs almost immediately. Then it shelled out $89 for Venezia's cans.
But things really heated up a few weeks ago when Cheryl Skidmore, a horse owner who lives in Costa Mesa but frequently rides in Santa Ana Heights, was cited and fined for allegedly leaving a mess.
"I did clean it up," she said later, "but [the officer] said it wasn't cleaned up to his satisfaction."
City officials argue that the horse manure is an environmental hazard that can seep into storm drains, ending up in Newport Bay. "There are certain parts of the bay and many tributaries that are way above state standards" for fecal bacteria, Kiff said.
The city, he said, is under court order to keep those levels low.
Equestrians, on the other hand, maintain that because horses are herbivores, their waste is benign. The two sides may collide during the Jan. 20 hearing at City Hall to consider Skidmore's appeal of her fine.
"We're going to make this a test case," Anderson said. "If the city wants to make it an issue, we'll go to the wall on it."