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End of trail for stables on Catalina

Island developer forces facility to close, citing safety issues. Residents protest, but appear to have little recourse.

September 30, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

An abrupt announcement that Santa Catalina Island's historic horseback-riding concession must close today has triggered an angry backlash from residents who cherish the aging facility as a symbol of their ties to a simpler time.

The fight to keep open the collection of corrals and wooden stables painted red with white trim -- not far from where "Riders of the Purple Sage" author Zane Grey once had a home -- underlines a defining characteristic of the island's close-knit community of 3,200 permanent residents: a deep resistance to dramatic change.

In years past, battles erupted over plans to eradicate thousands of feral pigs and goats that had destroyed vast swaths of natural vegetation on the island 22 miles off the mainland. It's not that the islanders were enamored of the animals, but they were used to them. A few years ago, hundreds of residents rallied against a proposal to remove a dilapidated miniature golf course.

"We don't like big change," said Margie Wahl, a bartender at Avalon's Locker Room sports bar and a local resident of 30 years. "We all live the same way, and think the same way, and we like it like that."

Wahl was among 1,500 Avalon residents -- about a third of the city's population -- who signed petitions circulated over the last two days in protest of the decision by the Santa Catalina Island Co., which owns nearly all the developable land on the island, to dismantle the stables in a canyon bottom adjacent to a golf course and Avalon City Hall.

"I think folks around here are rallying . . . just to stir things up," said Avalon Mayor Bob Kennedy. "But I'm not sure many of them understand what's really going on here."

Island Co. officials said they have no choice. Last year's devastating wildfires denuded the surrounding hills. J. Paul DeMyer, the company's vice president of real estate, said the fires had transformed the stables' 3.5 acres into "ground zero for potentially severe flooding, and a serious safety issue for horses, humans and everything else."

The announcement was particularly painful to Catalina Stables manager Rusty Connelly. On Monday he spent most of his time rustling up additional petition signatures and pleading with Island Co. officials to reconsider.

"I got sucker punched," Connelly said, striding past a dusty corral where 50 horses with names such as Chili and Houdini munched on clumps of alfalfa.

The stables, an island fixture for 60 years, have to be shut down today; the horses must be removed by Oct. 15.

"Their 30-day notice to vacate the premises has put me in a real raw spot," he said. "Heck, man, you can't evict someone from their home without a 90-day notice. What they're doing to us and our horses is downright cruel."

Nonetheless, even Connelly acknowledged that things were not looking good for the stables where thousands of tourists from around the world have saddled up and hit a trail that starts between hole 9 and hole 1 of the golf course and then weaves along hills with panoramic ocean vistas.

"All I really want is permission to continue operating for two more years in order to recoup our investments in the place," he said. "But even when I ask them for one more week beyond the Oct. 15 deadline, they say, 'No. Get out and that's that.' "

Island Co. officials argued that in addition to the safety issues, the facility is no longer compatible with the area, which has grown to include Avalon schools, a hospital, City Hall, the golf course and acreage slated for future development of upscale homes. And after eight consecutive years of declining cross-channel visitors, closure of the old horseback-riding facility fits with Avalon's ongoing efforts to upgrade its attractions for tourists who are big spenders.

Then there are the unpleasant odors wafting off the area where land managers for years have dreamed of establishing a championship 18-hole golf course, according to DeMyer.

The ruckus started a few weeks ago after Bunny Putnam, who had operated Catalina Stables for 24 years, announced her decision to retire from the business and sell its concession contract back to the Island Co.

In a prepared statement, Putnam said, "The growth of Avalon and its population has put the stables smack in the middle of virtually everyone's day-to-day activities and as a result horseback-riding is no longer the safe wilderness experience it once was."

Connelly and his wife, Gloria, who have been running the facility's stables for the last few years, disagreed and vowed not to go down without a fight. After all, they argued, the Island Co. has a reputation for taking far longer than expected to realize its real estate goals.

But on Monday some stable employees were running out of patience and resigned to seeking another line of work.

"When people ask me how I feel about it," said ranch hand Michelle "Spike" Savage, 26, "my response is a long list of cuss words."

Connelly sympathized.

"I haven't driven a car for over 16 years -- that's probably what scares me most," he said, adjusting his soiled white cowboy hat. "If I have to leave the island, I'd have to go back to the real world."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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