Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
September 17, 2014 12:51 p.m.
While adopting a new budget met with yawns from city residents, not so for the question of horseback riding on city beaches. During the Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) on September 16, 2014, chambers were packed with horseback riders and commercial horse rental operators who voiced concerns over proposed amendments to city code regarding horseback riding.
The item had been placed on the agenda as First Reading of Ordinance 2014-29, following discussion over concerns raised by residents to city police and aired during previous FBCC meetings. Currently, horseback riding is allowed on the stretch of city beach between Sadler Road and Peter’s Point Park between the hours of 5 p.m. and sunset and from sunrise to 11 a.m. from May through October. From November through April there are no daily time restrictions. Commercial operators require a special permit for their business, but not for each horse.
The proposed changes require permits and fees for private riders in addition to commercial operators. Other new requirements would include:
- Display a permit sticker on a horse trailer;
- Equip each horse with “a tail bag and/or riders must clean up manure deposited by their horse(s) on the beach;”
- Riders must respect sunbathers, swimmers and others by maintaining clearance when riding;
- Permit holders must have documentation of a negative Coggins test for all horses;
- Children under 16 years of age must wear a helmet that meets standards pursuant to Section 773.06 Florida Statutes;
- “All permit holders are REQUIRED to call Fernandina Beach Police dispatch … at least four hours in advance of every ride to report their name, permit number, time of ride and exact number of horses that will be riding on the beach.”
Violations would result in permit revocation, possible fines and penalties.
Ten speakers, representing themselves and/or commercial horse rental operations, opposed the increased regulation, citing what they considered an unreasonable and possibly discriminatory requirement to notify Police dispatch in advance of their rides. They also objected to the tail bag requirement and explained the safety issues associated with dismounting and remounting the horse in order to clean up droppings during a ride on the beach.
Betty Davis, a private rider, said that she did not understand how anyone could object to horses on the beach. She said that the community has always taken pride in this activity and that local resorts and tourism companies have played up the romantic idea of riding a horse on the beach. She cited the ongoing problem of dog waste left on the beach, which she claimed is not being treated in such a draconian manner.
Commissioner Johnny Miller explained to the audience that the issue had come before the Commission when citizens who live along the stretch of beach that the horses travel had brought forward complaints about horse owners failure to clean up after their animals, potential health hazards of horse droppings, rude or intimidating behavior displayed by some commercial operators. He said that following those complaints he had researched the matter and learned that horse droppings consist of mainly dried grass and do not present a threat from toxins. He concluded that the problem is “more of a visual thing.” He said everyone should be able to enjoy the beach and that the city has one of the last beaches in Florida where people can ride horses.
Dawn Latham, a local equestrienne and lawyer, claimed that the notice requirements being proposed were “discriminatory and unreasonable.” She asked, “How burdensome can regulations be? People have a right to use the beach.” She said that the changes discriminate against horse riders, reminding commissioners that the city does not require fishermen to clean up the shrimp heads and fish guts they leave behind on the beach.
Jim Caine, another local attorney, spoke in support of the strengthened requirements. He said that horseback riders display “an attitude of entitlement,” and that he has no confidence that riders will pick up after their horses. He asked that the requirement be strengthened requiring riders to “immediately pick up” horse waste. He asked why, if horseback riding was such a good thing, it was not expanded to all city beaches, as opposed to being limited to the current stretch between Sadler Road and Peter’s Point Park. He cited past complaints with riders and said that he did not like to be treated like a second-class citizen because he objected to horse droppings on the beach. He said that for him, the problem centers on waste removal. “I’m about the poop,” he said. He also said that while he was the only speaker supporting the measure, he was marshaling others who would speak at the second reading of the ordinance.
Three commercial operators claimed that they all cleaned up after their riders. Problems were cited with people from out of state who trailer horses to city beaches and ride without permits, often leaving waste on the beach. Debbie Manser, a successful commercial operator for 19 years, said that many people visit the island just to ride horses on the beach. She claimed that horseback riding has brought hundreds of thousands of tourism dollars to the community and that local horseback riding rates high on attractions listed by Trip Advisor. She advocated better signage to advise riders of clean up requirements. She also requested a change in the permitted hours of operation.
Stan Potter, operator of Happy Trails, explained his clean up operation and objected to the 4-hour notice requirement proposed. He said, “It is cumbersome, and I don’t see the benefits.” He asked that riding times be expanded after Labor Day.
The meeting seemed to get out of control as Mayor Boner allowed speakers to go over time, return to the podium, and rebut other speakers. Finally, he reminded audience members that they must address remarks to the commission, not other speakers. Other speakers made the point that there is already a regular police presence on the beach, that perhaps money collected via permits could be used to hire someone to clean up the beach, and that animals on the beach make city beaches more enjoyable and colorful. Other commercial operators cited harassment by individuals that scares horses and creates a safety problem. One woman tearfully told commissioners, “This is my livelihood, it’s how I feed my family.”
After close to an hour of public input, commissioners discussed the best way to proceed. Vice Mayor Pelican suggested tabling the item. Commissioner Pat Gass enumerated the concerns she had heard: the city beach exists for everyone to use; the 4-hour notice seems questionable; the operators would like hours for beach use off season expanded; and the clean up issue must be resolved. She expressed interest in learning about possibly expanding the activity to more city beaches. Commissioner Charlie Corbett called for a workshop to allow residents and horse riding advocates to work out their differences. Commissioner Johnny Miller said that the local owners appear to work well together. Gass, expressing what appeared to be the consensus of the commission, said, “We need a solution that needs to work for everyone.”
After an hour and a quarter of public input and discussion the FBCC decided to place the proposed ordinance on hold and move forward with a public workshop to seek a workable solution to the problem of horse waste on the beach.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.