June 2018 - The Gallop: Under Threat
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Thursday, 17 May 2018 21:16

“Where is the Equestrian Center in this project?”

by Kim F. Miller

I’m optimistic by nature, so I took a line in the proposed master site plan for the Orange County Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa as good news for the fate of horse boarding there. The first point under the heading “Overall Strategy” is “Improvements be made to the Equestrian Center to enhance functionality and competiveness; more oriented to serving the youth market.” That’s verbatim from the plan the Fair Board hired consultants to create.

Silly me.

Fortunately, veteran equestrian advocates knew better. On April 26, they filled to overflowing the first public Fair Board meeting to address the site plan. Many were alumni of the Derail The Sale campaign that saved the entire Fairgrounds, a remarkable two-year effort that concluded in 2011 and prevented the 150-acre venue from being sold to likely private development. These advocates understood that the more important point was the first item in Phase III of the proposed site plan:

 

“Repurpose Equestrian Center Space.”

 

“Demolish: Equestrian Center barns and offices.”

I’d noticed the radically-conflicting statements that appear six pages from each other in the plan. Still optimistic, however, I sat through six hours of the eight-hour meeting thinking the “improvements made to the Equestrian Center” would be explained in a way that made sense. Procedural matters prevented the public from getting questions answered and the consultants’ presentation was frustrating because it did not distinguish between structures used for fair-season agricultural exhibits and those used for year-round boarding facilities. It seemed like they were obfuscating the point that Fair Board member Nick Berardino finally asked of the consultant: “Cut to the chase:

Where is the Equestrian Center in this project?”

Gone

Stabling and arenas on 7.5 acres, currently used by 180 horses and a lot more people, were gone in the draft plan, the consultant finally acknowledged. The plan proposed a 1.5-acre “equine center” incorporated into a “livestock complex.” The few horses that design could accommodate might be used for educational or therapeutic programs, but no more privately owned horses maintained for private enjoyment. Pony rides or a petting zoo-type interaction seemed most realistic.

Fair Board chair Barbara Bagneris estimated she held 50 cards from those who wanted their three-minute opportunity to address the Fair Board and the majority were clearly equestrians. Board member Ashleigh Aitken heads the Board’s Equestrian Task Force and summarized the shock and outrage felt by many. “This is not an integration (of horses into the fairgrounds), this is a decimation!”

Speaker after speaker cited reasons to maintain horse boarding at the Fair & Event Center. Perceptions that it’s only “the wealthy” who keep and enjoy horses there were refuted. One speaker noted that the wealthy keep horses at exclusive private stables and it’s people of mostly average means who work hard and make lifestyle sacrifices to keep horses at the Costa Mesa facility.

Riding schools, training programs, the Orange County Vaulting Club and a therapeutic riding center that provide horses for students were praised as affordable access points for the community. Continued access to horses, an important part of Orange County’s agricultural heritage and the OC Fair & Event Center’s mission statement, were emphasized in many comments. In my time at the meeting, no one spoke up for the parking lot, RV campground, or  “flexible space” proposed to take the Equestrian Center’s place.

Lack of transparency, too little solicitation of pubic input and ignoring much of the public input that was collected, were chief criticisms of how the so-far 18-month new site plan process has been handled so far.
The Equestrian Center’s role as an evacuation site during fires or other emergencies was also emphasized, although one speaker felt those horses (and other animals) could be accommodated in temporary pens in the arena or livestock paddocks that are mostly used during the summer Fair season.

The master site plan development process included a third-party sourced estimate on the cost of replacing the Equestrian Center. Pegged at $20 million, this plan, when scrutinized later, seemed grossly inflated and badly out of sync with real-world horsekeeping priorities. Examples include a $1.288 million office/retail/restroom building and a $25,321 picnic area. It also includes heated stalls in a region where the annual average low temperature is 55 degrees.

At the meeting’s end, discussions on whether to move forward with the master plan were postponed, with the next pubic meeting set for May 24. Committing to the $169 million price tag for the whole fairgrounds remodel was questioned by several Fair Board members.

History & Future

At the public meeting, former Fair Board member David Padilla noted that, “As you are thinking about demolishing the Equestrian Center, remember that, without the equestrians, the Fairgrounds would not be here today. Without them, I’m sure it would have been sold to a group of developers.”

That reference to the successful Derail The Sale efforts of nearly 10 years ago sounded an encouraging note about what organized equestrians can accomplish. The Orange County Fair & Event Center’s (aka the 32nd District Agricultural Association) Equestrian Center was completed in 1979, with a later phase completed in 1982. At the time it was spread on 15 acres, approximately double the acreage and horse head count. In 2005, an earlier master plan cut its size in half, to the current 7.5 acres.

Lifelong eventing rider Lisa Sabo moved her training program to the Fairgrounds after the first downsizing. She added “advocate” to her resume in July of 2009 as a Derail The Sale leader. That summer, it was learned that the entire Fairgrounds had been slipped into a state budget bill that placed it on the sales block. The potential loss of a public fairground was devastating to many within and beyond the horse world who joined forces in its defense. But equestrians are largely credited as game changers in preventing the sale.

Afterwards, Sabo and other Derail The Sale lobbyists were confident horses had a long-term home at the Fair & Event Center and were shocked at the current draft of the proposed new plan. Past experience and an existing support base provide a jumpstart in the current effort, and it will be needed. The Fair Board’s lack of action on a master plan decision during the April public meeting does not lessen the urgency one iota, Lisa asserts.
Mid-May statements on the OC Fair & Event Center website (under the “public information/master-plan” tab) seemed encouraging. “Next steps include the board continuing the dialog with representatives from the fairgrounds’ equestrian center about future plans for horse facilities and how to more closely integrate equestrian uses into the property.”

Lisa described that as a positive development. “They did not use the word ‘demolish!’” A few Fair Board members had come to tour the Equestrian Center and a visit for OCFEC stakeholders to the Chino Hills Equestrian Center to gather ideas was on the mid-May agenda.  “We all thought things were going in a really good direction.”

However, an incident that struck Lisa as “last minute shenanigans” dispelled that mood, at least temporarily, after a Monday, May 14, afternoon fire inspection of the buildings where six stable maintenance workers often spend the night. “At 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, (Equestrian Center manager) Rick Hansen gets a call from (OCFEC VP) Ken Karns saying it was unsafe and the guys have to be out of there by 6 pm.,” Lisa recounts. “If something was unsafe, they should have said so on Monday! The way they did this is wrong!”

Lisa’s view of the incident reflects widely-held concern that a segment of stakeholders is determined to oust privately-owned horses by whatever means necessary.  Allegations that master plan consultants were told or encouraged to rid OCFEC of privately-horses have laced discussions since the draft plan was made public. Charles Johnson, of the lead consulting firm on the project, Johnson Consulting, referred an inquiry on that and any other related topic to the OCFEC’s PR department.

Save The OC Fairgrounds Equestrian Center

While the outlook for Orange County equestrians shifts daily, Lisa expects that the Fair Board will at some point move on to starting a California Environmental Quality Act review of some or all of the master plan’s recommendations. By law, she notes, the CEQA process includes considering alternatives and that’s where equestrian supporters are focusing their immediate efforts. As of mid-May, a Save The OC Fair Equestrian Center GoFundMe page had raised nearly $13,000 toward an initial $25,000 goal. Approximately $15,000 is earmarked to hire an already-onboard architect to draft a proposal for a new Equestrian Center. Very preliminary ballpark estimates put a $10 million price tag on that endeavor.

Funds raised also cover the cost of live-streaming the Fair Board meetings, which are available on Do The Fair Thing’s Facebook page.

During the April public Fair Board meeting, the consultants described the boarding area barns as being in bad physical shape, but it was not clear how much that status played into the “demolish” recommendation. Refurbishing the buildings is an option for the future, Lisa acknowledges, but she has a longer-term permanence in mind and a “go big” approach. Returning the Equestrian Center to its original 15 acres, making room for more horses and adding more year-round equestrian events define the course for the Do The Fair Thing campaign.

“We did this fight 10 years ago, and we don’t want to do it again in another 10,” Lisa explains. “We need to lock this in so it’s a permanent equestrian facility for the next 50 years.”

A “fighting” mindset is important to success, but so is level-headedness and an education-minded approach toward the community and the Fair Board, Lisa explains.  In attending the public meeting, it seemed that several Fair Board members had little idea of the nature of daily activities at the Equestrian Center. Many supporters believe that much of the larger community has no idea that access to horses and riding exists at the OC Fair & Event Center. Changing that perception is another priority in Do The Fair Thing’s mission.

Stay tuned!

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 949-644-2165.

 


 

How To Help!

Unfortunately, this threat to the Orange County Fair & Event Center Equestrian Center is one of many similar situations faced by horse owners and enthusiasts across the country, especially in densely populated areas. No matter where you live, please take action toward maintaining access to horses and the quality of life benefits we all know they provide. Here’s how:

•    Like & Follow “Do The Fair Thing” on Facebook to stay abreast of the situation and opportunities to help.
•    Donate to “Save The OC Fair Equestrian Center” on www.gofundme.com.
•    Write a letter in support of the OC Fair Equestrian Center. Send it to Lisa Sabo at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
•    Check in with your local public boarding facilities to see if they need help, too.