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Oldsmar is split on horse riding in Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve

OLDSMAR — The issue stalled years ago.

Armando Gort had never complied with a chief condition that would have allowed him to lead paying customers on horseback through Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve, so officials dropped the idea and went on to other things.

Now he's back and plans to ask the City Council at a meeting set for Tuesday to let him take small groups of horseback riders on the protected land.

It's a topic that has inspired passion in the city for years. Some people support Gort because he provides a service to children in the city with his equine programs and summer camps.

"My daughter learned to ride there,'' said City Council member Suzanne Vale, who asked for the issue to be placed on the agenda.

She was irritated when Gort's new management team, which includes his sister, attended a recent meeting asking once again for horse trails and "the council basically said, 'Thank you for coming, now go away,' '' she said.

"I think they deserve to be heard,'' Vale said.

Gort has owned the Hire A Pony stable right across the city line in Tampa for more than a dozen years.

When the preserve was still in private hands, he took groups of riders splashing along the shoreline of the upper part of Old Tampa Bay all the time with the owner's permission.

When the land was transformed into a preserve, Gort asked for and was granted a riding trail, something Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland supported at the time.

But among other conditions, the city required that Gort buy special liability insurance before taking any horses onto the preserve.

"It was $40,000 a year,'' he said. "I couldn't afford it.''

So Gort moved his rental horse-riding operation to a ranch in Pasco County while maintaining his boarding stable in Tampa.

But after three years, he was forced out of Pasco because the land was being developed.

Now he again wants Oldsmar to let him use the preserve. He said he now has the necessary insurance and also will clean up any manure the horses leave behind, which has been an ongoing concern.

But Beverland is no longer supportive because the city expended efforts years ago to help Gort get his trail and he never followed through and got the insurance. Then he stopped communicating with staff.

"I went out on a limb for this guy and he cut it off,'' Beverland said. "He had a chance. He blew it. Too late, friend.''

City Manager Bruce Haddock said he doesn't believe the preserve is appropriate for horses because they are heavy animals and the grooves they would leave in the trails would change the land surface and impact stormwater runoff.

"The intent was to leave it in its natural state,'' he said.

Mayor Jim Ronecker said he is also worried about the environmental impact, but has another concern.

"They're a Hillsborough County business and we're a Pinellas County city park,'' he said. "Our park would be benefitting a Hillsborough County business. (It) leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

"I always have an open mind when I get up on the dais, but I'm leaning toward (not supporting the issue).''

Laura Scholtz, a volunteer at Hire A Pony, hopes Ronecker changes his mind. She said Gort "has a heart of gold'' and wants to introduce as many kids to horses as possible because it helps them with their emotional and physical development.

"When they're there, they're running, they're having fun," she said. "They're in the great outdoors.''

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

If you go

Horses on agenda

The Oldsmar City Council will discuss horseback riding in Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Oldsmar Council Chambers, 100 State St. W.

Oldsmar is split on horse riding in Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve 06/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 8:12pm]
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