Parents call the Bakas Equestrian Center their "little slice of heaven."
Located on an idyllic 22-acre plot off Race Track Road, the center offers horse riding for mentally and physically disabled children and adults, helping them develop balance and coordination.
But now the land, owned by Hillsborough County, is at the center of a tug-of-war between parents and the well-connected owner of one of Florida's largest beer distributors.
Tom Pepin, president and CEO of Pepin Distributing Co., wants the county to give him the land in exchange for building a new Seffner therapy center, about 31 miles away. The proposal submitted in November said he would use the Bakas site partly to provide activities for students at Pepin Academies. But the center is right next to a 67-acre parcel where Pepin lives in a $1.5 million home. That led parents opposed to the deal to claim that he just wants the land for himself.
Pepin said Monday that his plans for the land do not include the charter schools that bear his name. He said that the land would be for his own use but that he has agreed with county officials not to develop it.
"Does it benefit me? Yes, it does," he said. "But the real benefit is for those in the eastern county or the entire Hillsborough County who will benefit from the new facility."
He said Bakas' current location in the northwest corner of Hillsborough is too remote to benefit most residents. The Seffner site would have more pasture land and would be more accessible.
Seffner would be too far away for many of the families who rely on the center, parents say. The Seffner site lacks shade and does not have a pond, which the horses use to cool off.
The families want the county to reject the deal and are bracing for a long, ugly battle.
"People are up in arms and they're really scared because of how powerful Mr. Pepin is," said Kim Hajaistron, whose son Michael rides at the center. "We don't have a lawyer. We're special-needs parents who are used to fighting; we've had to fight since our kids were born, so if we have to fight a beer baron, bring it."
Under state law, the county is obligated to consider Pepin's deal, which was submitted as an unsolicited November proposal. He is proposing to pay $430,000 for an 18-acre parcel on N Kingsway Road in Seffner and would pay up to $450,000 for the construction of new stables and other facilities there.
The existing center has a market value of $810,000, according to property appraiser records. It includes a covered arena, a 13-stall stable and an administrative center with offices, a classroom and a kitchen.
Operating the center costs the county about $580,000 a year. It pays the salaries of nine staffers, including seven who are certified in equestrian therapy. Parents chip in, holding fundraisers to pay for horse feed and other expenses and putting in an estimated 500 volunteer hours a month.
Pepin said he believes that no more than 40 families would be affected by the relocation. He said the center is underused and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Parents dispute that estimate. About 80 to 100 people take classes every week, Hajaistron said. Riders come from as far as Brandon and Pasco County, she said.
The center was established nearby in 1987 and moved to its current site in 2001. That 30-year history means most of its riders come from that area, she said.
The deal is being evaluated by the county's Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department, director Forest Turbiville said.
"We look at value to the taxpayers of Hillsborough County; we look at all the affected parties," Turbiville said. "Certainly, the parents are at the top of that list."
If officials recommend moving ahead with the deal, it would require approval by a majority of county commissioners. Pepin's attorney, Vin Marchetti, met in September with all seven county commissioners then in office and has met twice with Deputy County Administrator Greg Horwedel to discuss the proposal, county lobbying records show.
Pepin took over Pepin Distributing from his father, Art Pepin, in 1982. The company employs about 280 people and boasts annual sales exceeding 10 million cases and 150,000 half-barrels. The two founded Pepin's Heart Hospital at University Community Hospital, and Pepin Distributing is one of the main donors to Pepin Charter Schools, which serve students with learning disabilities.
Driving to Seffner would be a stretch for Theresa Yarborough, who brings her three children to the center three or four times a week. Jordan Yarborough was only 3 when his twin sisters, Chelsea and Meghan, were born. At the time, specialists thought he had a speech defect.
It would be another two years before the mother learned that all three of her children were born with Angelman syndrome, a genetic condition that causes developmental disability.
She is also now a single parent.
Her children always get excited when they head to Bakas, she said. They feel accepted and know they won't be stared at for the way they look or speak.
"They have a lot of anxiety; they don't show it here," she said.
Christina Freeman, 24, competed at a Special Olympics event held at Bakas last weekend, winning a second-place ribbon.
She nearly drowned when she was 6 and a man bumped into her at a water park, said her mother, Amy Chirinos. The oxygen deficit she suffered left her unable to focus for long periods.
Riding helps her focus. In the saddle, it's not just about her but Chase, the Palomino horse that always take care of her.
Making the journey from their Town 'N Country home to Seffner would be tough, Chirinos said. "This is the one thing that Christina really enjoys doing."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446.