OLDSMAR — Beating the odds, Hire A Pony Riding Academy has been given another shot at using the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve for horseback riding.
The City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to give the business 60 days to work with staff and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. In that time, the business and city have to determine what the issues are surrounding the notion of horses in the protected area and come up with solutions and the costs.
Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland cast the lone nay vote, saying years ago he "went out on a limb (for Hire A Pony) and the limb was cut out from under me.''
Hire A Pony supporters packed council chambers and spoke passionately about why the Hillsborough County business should be allowed to have an equestrian path on land owned and managed by Oldsmar and Pinellas County.
"My daughter has been riding at Hire A Pony for 10 years and it's been extremely beneficial for her,'' said Jean-Charles Faust of Clearwater. "(Using the preserve) will enhance the horse riding experience.''
Paco Amram said he went on a trail ride years ago and had a "wonderful'' time.
"The day it's allowed, I will be there with my kids,'' he said, adding that most conservation areas in the state allow horseback riding.
What defenders did not offer was a plan outlining the financial impact to the city, who would clean up the manure, who would maintain the trail, who would police it and keep riders from trotting all over the wetlands or an analysis of the consequences to the environment.
Laura Scholtz, a volunteer at Hire A Pony, on Race Track Road in Hillsborough County near the county line, said the business provides a valuable service to children who cannot afford a horse of their own, most of whom are not from Tampa.
"Two hundred and fifty people go on horse rides per month,'' she said. "Seventy-five percent are from Pinellas.''
"It's a more wholesome alternative than computers and video games,'' she said.
As for damaging the preserve with their droppings, Scholtz said "horses are vegetarians and do not hurt the environment'' and she didn't know why anyone would have to clean up the manure "if only horses use it.''
But Beverland countered that "the kids are going to leave the trails and that horse poop is going to go everywhere … it's going to go into the bay.''
Janice Miller, a former racehorse trainer, has been against riding in the preserve since she served on the City Council when the issue first came up in 2004.
She told the St. Petersburg Times that the heavy animals will create trenches and the trail "is just going to be a gorge after a while.''
"Two hundred and fifty horses a month on the trail, do you know what that will do?'' she asked.
Miller said she is also worried about the liability to the city, saying "if something should happen, God forbid, to these kids, they're going to go after the ones with the deepest pockets — the city. The waivers they sign aren't worth the paper they are printed on.''
Hire A Pony owner Armando Gort, she said, is simply trying "to make money off our trails.''
Gort had an agreement about five years ago with the city to use the preserve for trail rides and a path of a little over a mile long was carved out of the vegetation. But he never bought the necessary liability insurance and moved his rental horse operation to a ranch in Pasco County. When he was forced out of that location he came back to Oldsmar, but the contract had expired and the trail was grown over.
Gort told the Times he now has the insurance.
Trail riding makes up 90 percent of his business. Right now, he leads riders through a local half-built neighborhood, but won't be allowed to use it for much longer.
City Council member Suzanne Vale said Gort should be granted a trial period to see how it goes.
After all, she said, the path is "a miniscule area in a huge preserve.''
"It's to be used and enjoyed,'' she said. "That's why we bought it.''
Eileen Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.