A planning board meeting on the Whispering Meadows Ranch brought out dozens of the ranch's supporters after some locals suggested that the nonprofit should move.
An equine therapy ranch on John Anderson Highway that serves children, disabled people and veterans may continue to operate, Flagler County Planning and Land Development Board members decided after dozens of the ranch’s supporters — including a representative from Daytona State College and two School Board members — crowded a planning board meeting to speak in support of the ranch.
Whispering Meadows Ranch, a nonprofit at 5011 John Anderson Highway operated by Helene and Richard Davis and their daughter Kristine Aguirre, became the center of a community dispute after a nearby property owner’s planned land sale deal fell through.
"I need these people's help. These people have just been so wonderful to us. They bring so much to me and my family."
— CLAUDETTE O'DOWD, Palm Coast resident, on how the ranch has helped her children, who are on the autism spectrum
The property owner, John Burek, wrote a letter saying that the buyer backed out of the deal because of the ranch and warning that it could lower area property values.
A handful of residents agreed, and some suggested that the ranch’s services for veterans with PTSD could endanger residents and that allowing it to operate could “open the floodgates” to other businesses.
Represented by local Attorney Michael Chiumento, Burek argued that the ranch should be moved to an agricultural zoning district area such as the area around the Agricultural Museum; that’s the zoning district that includes stables as a designated use, and when a use has been specified for a particular zoning district, it’s not legal to operate that use in other zoning districts.
But county staff don’t consider the ranch a stable because it does not board horses, said Sean Moylan, an attorney at the Flagler County Attorney’s Office.
The ranch agreed to restrictions limiting the hours of service and the number of clients to be served daily, and sought the county government’s permission to operate as a “semi-public use,” a designation often used for churches.
Palm Coast resident Claudette O’Dowd told planning board members that the ranch has done much to help her 8-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, both of whom are on the autism spectrum.
“My son deals with impulse control ... and the ranch is helping him learn that self control,” she said. “I need these people’s help. These people have just been so wonderful to us. They bring so much to me and my family.”
School Board member Colleen Conklin called it “embarrassing” that the county was having to entertain such a challenge to the ranch, which had operated for 13 years and served so many people.
She noted that the zoning allows for equine use, and that the ranch, which has four horses and a pony, doesn’t even have as many horses as would be permissible on the 4.5-acre parcel.
“The service that is provided to our community is one of a kind,” she said. “It is one of the things that make Flagler County Flagler County.”
School Board member Janet McDonald also emphasized the ranch’s service to local children in particular, calling it “magical.”
Sam Smith, a coordinator at the Daytona State College’s School of Health Careers, said DSC’s occupational therapy students help aid disabled people at the ranch, and gain valuable experience doing so.
“The students need Whispering Meadows to apply their talents and skills for those in need,” Smith said. “The community of the less fortunate need Whispering Meadows as an outlet, and an advantage to help them live more productive lives. And finally, Flagler County needs Whispering Meadows as a benevolent, responsible and inspiring contributor.”
John and Marsha Tanner said they believed the ranch is doing a good thing, but should do it elsewhere.
“It’s not zoned for this,” Marsha Tanner said. “There have been complaints.”
John Tanner said that allowing it to operate in a residential area sets a precedent that could lead to more businesses operating in residential areas.
But Moylan said that the county allows for that: Other property owners can also apply for home occupational licenses or a semi-public use designation.
The county has no records of any complaints lodged against the ranch until the recent ones from the Bureks and the Tanners, county Growth Management Director Adam Mengel said.
The planning board voted unanimously to grant the ranch’s application for semi-public use, provided it abide by its stated conditions. The County Commission will hear the issue next.