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Unhappy Trails in Norco

Many fear that housing projects will citify 'Horse Town USA'

June 06, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Former mayor and saloon owner Robbin Kozile brags that there are more horses than people in Norco, more miles of riding trails than paved roads.

Tall tales?

Maybe, but there's a hitching post at the downtown McDonald's.

Now "Horse Town USA," complete with horseflies and dusty, slow-poke streets, is trying to rein in what many fear is out-of-control development that will ruin their way of life. Residents are angry about a developer they say came to town and cut a deal to bulldoze their beloved, scrubby ridgelines, then plop down row after row of McMansions.

"It's getting citified," said Berwin Hanna, a horseshoer who heads the 1,300-member Norco Horsemen's Assn. "It's kind of scary that all these people are moving in and no horses are coming to town with them....

"These people don't want their Mercedes getting dirty with horse manure."

Parks Commissioner Kevin Bash said he and other longtime residents fear that newcomers won't be as enamored with the grit and pungent smells, and eventually may try to dismantle some of the strictest zoning in the nation to protect horses.

"It breaks my heart; it's all going to change," he said. Others dismiss his dire prediction, including the developer under fire.

Stan Brown, vice president of SunCal Cos. in Irvine, says the company tried very hard to keep the horse in its rightful place in Norco, and its current 588-home Norco Ridge Ranch development includes mandatory corral areas and riding trails on both sides of the streets.

"I think there are going to be horses in Norco for a very, very long time," said Brown. His project is the latest and most visible in a series of developments that have upset many longtime residents.

Other Southern California communities have tried -- with mixed results -- to implement zoning that would let horses and other livestock coexist with urban growth. These include Burbank, La Habra Heights, Fullerton and Yorba Linda.

But Norco, a city of 25,000 north of Corona, stands apart."Norco is the crown jewel of any city having to do with horses," said Jim Real, of the California Horsemen's Assn. "Every street there is a trail. The city bird is a fly."

He's only half-joking. In an attempt to maintain the horsy way of life, recent mayors and council members have passed zoning requirements protecting the rights of homeowners who want to live with their animals.

No paved sidewalks are allowed; instead, at least one side of every street must be a riding trail that connects to 90 miles of trail running through town. Every new home must have a quarter acre available for corrals or other domestic animals, with no swimming pools, tennis courts or the like within it.

Woe to any homeowner who tries to sneak in an asphalt driveway -- city inspectors will order it ripped out so that hay trucks, horseshoers and the horses have easy access.

"It's called a single-purpose community," said UC Davis researcher Al Sokolow, who specializes in land use issues. "Planning and zoning and city services are all focused on that single purpose."

He pointed to Industry as another example of a single-purpose community, where everything was designed, to bring industry to town. For instance, police and fire equipment and staffing were largely dedicated to protecting factories and warehouses, not homes.

It's hard to miss the point in the Norco.

"We're devoted to the equine in this town. It's all about the horse," said Kozile, who has a corral next to his Maverick Steakhouse and Saloon. Patrons ride in nightly and tie up, leaving telltale road apples in the dirt parking lot just off Interstate 15 in western Riverside County.

There are feed stores, riding stables, horse dentists and veterinary hospitals lining the main thoroughfares. Every weekend, hundreds of riders clip-clop down city streets.

There are extra-high highway overpasses so a nervous stallion won't get spooked by an 18-wheeler underfoot, and every male member of the council sports a string tie in his City Hall photo. The sole councilwoman is a gymkhana rider.

But patrons of the Maverick saloon can see change coming clear as day on the other side of Interstate 15. Massive earthmovers have cut gashes in the hillside, and houses are sprouting -- grading and homes that residents say SunCal representatives told them would never be visible.

The biggest uproar centers on a hilltop that has been scalped by about 20 feet, leaving two large, flat lots for million-dollar houses. It is a technique known as "eagles' nesting."

Residents and elected officials say they remember the meetings at which SunCal consultants submitted large color photographs and promised that there would be no eagle's nests, and that the ridgelines would be preserved.

At an Aug. 16, 2000, City Council meeting, a consultant testified "the ridgelines are preserved intact," and said that the "eagles' nest or top-of-the-ridgeline scenario ... is exactly what we are trying to get away from."

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