During the next seven months, a longtime nonprofit horse rescue facility in Gilbert will make a decision: Whether to stay in Maricopa County or move to Yavapai County.
In a letter written Dec. 7, the Maricopa County Planning and Development Department informed the operators of Wildhorse Ranch Rescue they would need to receive a special use permit to comply with zoning requirements for buildings added to the property since opening in 1995 - or scale back operations.
After Wildhorse Ranch officials met with county officials on Jan. 4, the rescue facility agreed to start taking steps toward a compliance agreement offered by the county. The facility has until the end of this week to enter into the compliance agreement or close by July 15.
Wildhorse Ranch Rescue, 11811 S. Lindsay Road between Elliot and Warner roads, was founded in 1995 and currently houses 14 horses and has about 30 cats on its 1.2-acre property, said Kim Meagher, founder and chairman of the ranch's board of directors. Wildhorse Ranch takes in aging and neglected horses and has about 60 volunteers. It also shelters retired government horses from the National Forest Service and rescues Grand Canyon hiking dogs from the Havasupai Indian Nation for its HavasuPup program that places them in homes.
"We're not going to let them shut us down," Meagher said. "It's basically down to money now. We're deciding whether we want to raise the money and stay here, or raise the money for a facility in Yavapai County. We think we provide a pretty good service for Maricopa County that they don't do. The county doesn't rescue horses. We've been doing this for 15 years. We ought to send the county a bill. We're not a public riding or boarding facility. We do fundraising, and the county considers that a commercial activity. We bring in $120,000 a year to the county and spend it all right here."
However, in its letter to Wildhorse Ranch, the Maricopa County Planning and Development Department told the horse rescue that it fell under the category of a public riding and boarding commercial facility and would have to apply for a special use permit. Part of that process includes fulfilling requirements of various county departments - an estimated $20,000 to $50,000 cost. A complaint had been filed against Wildhorse Ranch, triggering a follow-up investigation into the facility, according to information from Maricopa County.
Darren Gerard, deputy director for the county planning and development department, told the Tribune on Tuesday that the ranch has nine horses too many and has two options to continue operating: Scale back operations or obtain the special use permit so it can have proper zoning entitlement for the buildings the facility has added in the time the ranch has been in operation.
"That's the meat and potatoes of their violation," Gerard said. "There have been no construction or building permits taken out on the property for various sheds or storage buildings that have been added to the property. There's an old house on the property that pre-dates the county's requirements for building permits. We've offered them a compliance agreement, and we're hoping to be able to work with them."
Wildhorse Ranch is facing a $5,600 application fee for the special use permit and has paid a $250 pre-application fee.
In the months ahead, Wildhorse Ranch will have to meet with eight county departments including the health department, the water and sewer department and drainage department as well as transportation to make sure there's a turn lane on South Lindsay Road in front of the ranch so motorists can safely turn into the facility. The rescue facility also will have to pay for an engineering report to be done on what is needed for the property, an estimated $12,000, which likely would be the bulk of the costs involved with knowing what it will take to come into compliance for a special use permit.
"We really don't know what they're going to make us do," Meagher said.
Since Wildhorse Ranch is a non-profit organization overseen by volunteers, it relies heavily on donations it receives from throughout the U.S. and even out of the country.
"We need help, that's for sure," Meagher said. "We don't plan to stop rescuing animals."