County officials say codes for equestrian businesses need a closer look

The admission comes following a heated public hearing at the most recent County Council meeting

VANCOUVER — Clark County officials say they’ve heard the concerns of area horse owners loud and clear.

Horses graze in a field near Ridgefield. Photo by Mike Schultz
Horses graze in a field near Ridgefield. Photo by Mike Schultz

Dozens of those equine owners packed the most recent County Council meeting, expressing their frustration with code enforcement officials, who have issued four citations for code violations to equestrian facilities since 2018 according to Mitch Nickolds, director of the newly formed Code Enforcement department.

“Our investigations did turn up some violations,” Nickolds told the gathered crowd. “We reached out to the individuals and asked them to voluntarily comply. We’re working with those individuals now.”

One of those individuals is Amy Vesneske, who received a letter from the county on Dec. 24.

“All commercial use and/or equestrian activities, other than your personal use or use by members of the public who board their horses on your premises, providing that collectively this does not exceed five horses, must cease immediately,” the letter reads in part.

Vesneske says the county has demanded she cease all such activities on her property and obtain a Type 2 permit, similar to one required for businesses such as Home Depot or McDonald’s. 

“The issue is a Type 2site plan review was not written for a historic barn or a repurposed dairy,” Vesneske told the council, “nor were the horse’s welfare or needs taken into consideration.”

One of the requirements several people mentioned is that barns need to be soundproofed with horses kept inside from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m.

“Out of the 150-plus barns in Clark County, there is not a single one of them that meets the current codes,” Vesneske said. “There is no boarding facility or horseback riding lesson program that is compliant with these codes.”

People who board horses say county code makes it impossible to run their businesses legally. Photo by Mike Schultz
People who board horses say county code makes it impossible to run their businesses legally. Photo by Mike Schultz

Roger Sturdevant says he and his wife sunk their retirement into R&R Equestrian Center in Woodland. He spent $3,000 to consult with county officials, only to be informed they would need to spend another $6,600 for the Type 2 permit, in addition to other improvements including a sprinkler system in his barns.

“We’re farmers. We don’t make money,” Sturdevant said. “We’re lucky to pay for the hay and the mortgage at the end of the month.”

Of the dozens who spoke, some fought back tears as they told stories about the power of horses when it came to helping them through traumatic times, helping soldiers cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or giving children confidence and responsibility.

While horse ownership in Clark County has fallen in recent years, Alice Heller with the Executive Horse Council says there are still over 20,000 in the county. At least 44 percent of those are kept in boarding facilities.

“As Clark County has become more urbanized, less families are able to purchase enough acreage to support a horse on their own property,” Heller told the councilors. “Often the only way we can continue to enjoy the equine life is to utilize a boarding stable.”

A 2019 survey of 677 people led to an estimate that horse owners and businesses who cater to them translate to approximately $94 million in economic activity each year for Clark County.

Nickolds said the county is committed to assisting horse owners, through an urban livestock ordinance that allows the raising of farm animals in urban areas, and an equestrian uses zoning overlay.

“So there’s a lot of examples where the county has been proactive in supporting the horse community,” Nickolds said, adding that individuals facing fines are being given chances to look at assistance in “looking at their land use and looking at the opportunity for equestrian uses and equestrian related uses.”

Forty-four percent of horses in Clark County are boarded, and the people who run those barns say county code is making it impossible to do so legally. Photo by Mike Schultz
Forty-four percent of horses in Clark County are boarded, and the people who run those barns say county code is making it impossible to do so legally. Photo by Mike Schultz

Clark County Chair Eileen Quiring said the concerns of the community had been heard, and “I’m pretty sure that we’re probably going to come together and say we need to look at the code.”

Quiring added that another method to ensure change might be to form a citizen committee to discuss the issue.

County Manager Shawn Henessee says the frustration expressed by the equine community illustrates some of the complexities of enforcing the numerous codes on the books. 

“I’m sure at the time it made sense whenever it was adopted,” Henessee told Clark County Today. “I don’t want to speak for whoever was here then, but I’m not gonna sit here and say that the code is perfect.”

Without funding to have code enforcement officers simply driving around looking for violations, the county relies on complaints to prompt investigations. Henessee admits that can lead to situations that appear punitive, with angry neighbors wielding the code to make life difficult for a person or business they don’t like.

“Whenever somebody is cited or something like that they feel like it’s been punitive against them,” Henessee says. “But, we have to follow the code. If the code doesn’t make sense, then let’s change the code or modify it.”

In this case, Henessee admits there are parts of the code that he’d be happy to have the council take a closer look at.

“The idea that you’re going to have a soundproof barn,” he says. “Makes no sense to me.”

With Nickolds in charge of the code enforcement department, Henessee says one of his tasks will be to look at the code and find ways to simplify and clarify it. But it’s something that needs to be done carefully.

“I would like to simplify it, but sometimes when you simplify things on its surface, that sounds really nice, and that just leads to more ambiguity,” he says.

Meanwhile, the owners of barns where horses are boarded, or where training and competitions take place, will live in fear that any frustrated neighbor or angry ex-customer could put them at risk of losing their business.

““In many ways, we’re like a city with 200-plus thousand in the unincorporated areas,” Henessee says. “So we’ve got a lot of those code issues that the city’s face.”

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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