Horses — their smell, their manure, their beauty — inspired an hour and a half of at times fierce debate, as about 50 people nearly filled the town hall meeting room to consider the merits of having the selectmen more tightly regulate the keeping of the large and costly animals.

“My biggest complaint is just the smell,” said Kate Schiff of Lewis Drive. “It’s very hard to enjoy our back yard. We’re grilling and eating and we’re smelling horse manure.”

She and other neighbors turned out for the May 10 public hearing to vent their objections to three horses being kept at 79 Manor Road, a one-acre residential property.

Joe Giaccone, owner of the property — which is rented to Steve Strieter, who keeps the horses — said he and his tenant had been subjected to “an unending campaign” by neighbors spreading “misinformation, false claims and downright lies.”

The neighborhood complaints had led the Board of Selectmen to put forward a draft horse ordinance and call the public hearing on it.

Twenty-one people spoke, and were almost evenly divided on the subject.

Ten objected to the horses on the site — eight of them neighbors from the Manor Road area.

Eleven speakers were troubled by the prospect of tighter town regulation of horses — a group that including the property owner and tenant responsible for the horses on Manor Road, and nine horse owners from other areas of town.

“That ordinance is a sea change in the character of this town. It’s rigid,” Dr. Jeffrey Hubsher, a Ridgebury veterinarian who has horses, said of the selectmen’s proposal. “Is it necessary to have this? We have one incident. Some fine people who don’t like horses. Is there a compromise?”

How about another?

No decisions were made and First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the goal was to find the right balance in changing town ordinances concerning horses.

“This is a draft. It’s a work in progress,” Marconi said.

“We’re holding our first public hearing tonight so we can get input.”

The selectmen would work to improve their draft, based the hearing’s feedback, he said, then “perhaps another public hearing” would be conducted.

Any new horse ordinance would eventually have to go before a town meeting where “residents of the town will be invited in to vote yea or nay,” Marconi said.

Let’s form a committee!

A committee will be formed to work toward a solution that might address neighbors’ concerns without unduly burdening horse owners, according to Marconi.

He invited people from both camps to join.

By Monday, May 15, Maroni said, a number of people had emailed him with an interest in serving on the committee.

“We had an incredible response from people who’d like to become members of the committee that would help teach best practices for horse owners,” Marconi said. “Their feelings are that, if people knew and understood the best practices, the issues that we’re confronting with the ordinance would not be an issue.

“So the question has been, If a group of volunteers can work with the owner on Manor Road to create a paddock area that is in keeping with best practices, the issues will disappear — and if that were to happen, would the Board of Selectmen be willing to suspend the passage of an ordinance?”

Debate

Neighbors raised strong objections to the horses on Manor Road — and got some pushback.

Tom Pesce said the horses next door greatly affect his property at 32 Lewis Drive.

“You can’t enjoy your yard. You’re not safe. The smell is awful,” he said.

Pesce said the horses had frightened his family.

“It’s scary — a huge animal, kicking,” he said.

“It’s nonsense. It’s lies!” shouted out Strieter, owner of the horses.

Pesce stood his ground.

“A horse came through the fence, standing in our yard. It’s in the police record,” Pesce said.

“I’m defending my land, my children, my house, my right to enjoy my property,” he said. “It’s about how to be respectful in a small in-town neighborhood.”

Brian Haughney of 71 Manor Road said the one-acre property includes a house, garage and driveway as well as the horse paddock.

“You’re talking three large animals on less than half an acre,” he said. “As far as the smell, and riding up and down the street and leaving horse crap in the road, no one is taking care of that,” Haughney said.

“I’m not against horses,” said Sara Kessler of 53 Manor Road. “I’m not right near the property. I smell the horse manure sitting out in the back yard.”

The selectmen listened to a range of perspectives from horse owners.

“There are people in this town that appreciate seeing the animals,” said Patricia Kuehner, who has a 10-acre horse farm on West Lane. “There is a little fantasy of driving by these beautiful horse farms.”

Various horse farm owners also shared practical information — such as the use of stone dust or sand, allowing the easy pickup of manure, compared to dirt, which can become “muck.”

Rules, amendment

The proposed horse regulation would be an amendment to the town’s existing “livestock” ordinance, which addresses “cattle, bison, swine, goats, sheep, llamas, camels, horses, ponies, donkeys, mules or other hooved animals and poultry.”

The current rule applies only in neighborhoods with smaller lots — a half-acre or less — mostly in the village. It was adopted in 2007 after a controversy about a horse kept on a small Abbott Avenue property.

The law allows the town’s health director to inspect and enforce sanitary standards with fines of $100 to $250 a day if orders to correct violations are ignored.

The selectmen’s proposal would tack on additional rules specific to the “keeping of horses” as an amendment to the existing “livestock” regulations.

Basic elements of the draft put forward by the selectmen include:

  • There must be a minimum of 1.5 acres of “equine-usable” property for a first horse, and another half-acre for each additional horse kept on a property.
  • Manure must be “kept covered, stored in watertight containers/pits” and “removed at least once a week from May 1 to Oct. 1.”
  • Manure storage or structures for horse waste must be at least 25 feet from any property line, 100 feet from rivers, streams, ponds, or lakes, and 150 feet from “a tributary to public water supply.”
  • Horses must be kept on properties enclosed by wood fences, set back at least 15 feet from property lines, with a “three-sided shed, well-bedded and free from drafts and rain” provided for the horses.
  • Properties where horses are kept must “be maintained in a sanitary condition and subject to inspection by the Director of Health,” who may order them “closed or removed” if problems aren’t cleaned up.
  • Horse owners may file for an appeal order by the health director.

“What we’ve added is an appeal process,” Marconi told horse owners at the hearing.

Hubsher, the vet, thought the selectmen’s proposal was unnecessary.

“The frequency of these complaints is fairly small — a couple of times in 30 years I’ve been here,” he said. “These rules and regulations can be onerous for many of us.”

Coexistence

Dennis and Janine Peterson of Powdermaker Drive — outside the immediate neighborhood —  were sympathetic to neighbors bothered by the horses.

“I don’t think anyone’s a hater of horses. They’re haters of horse smell. Unless there’s proper maintenance — picking up the manure in the fields — it’s going to affect the neighbors,” Dennis Peterson said.

“I’d encourage the town to have a consistent standard,” he said. “It’s not clear to me why rules for the village wouldn’t apply to the whole town.”

Paul Gervais of 18 Fairfield Court — part of the Manor neighborhood — said his wife had grown up in Ridgefield, riding horses, and initially dismissed the fuss.

“Her first reaction was, There’s nothing to it,” he said. “It has changed. Now, when we walk through the neighborhood with the dogs, oh, my God!

“The thing is, it’s all in the manner of managing the property,” Gervais said. “You have to take into consideration you’re not the only one in the neighborhood. You co-exist with these people.”