Albemarle City Council hears concerns about equine therapy facility

Published 7:18 am Wednesday, September 4, 2019

One month after having adopted updates to ordinances regarding the keeping of horses within city limits, Albemarle City Council heard arguments in support of and against allowing the animals to be kept on site by Creative Counseling and Learning Solutions on West Main Street.

The topic, which occupied most of a more than four hour council meeting Tuesday, pitted residents of the College Park subdivision, who alleged nuisances such as smell and flies are a direct result of the center’s horses, against clients and supporters of the counseling center, who rebutted the allegations while praising the work done there by Dr. Laura Harbeson, founder and lead therapist.

At the council’s Aug. 5 meeting, College Park residents Michael Lambert and Jim Runyon reported that smells from the facility had become annoying to the residents there, and that the horses had escaped their fenced area on a number of occasions. Lambert also presented information recommending that one horse should be provided approximately two acres of pasture land.

Later during the August meeting, the board adopted a number of revisions to the animal ordinance, including the stipulation that any horse kept within the city limits have two acres of pasture space.
Harbeson and many supporters of Creative Counseling attending Tuesday’s meeting accused the College Park residents of having blindsided the business.

“I was never notified of any complaints,” Harbeson said. “The neighbors have never come to me to communicate any concerns with the smell.”

Harbeson addressed each of the group’s allegations to the council, including one where no one had been seen petting, riding or walking the horses.

“These horses are not ridden,” she said, explaining the two horses, Sage and Saffron, are therapy horses, each with health conditions that preclude riding.

Clients walk with and interact with the two horses in an area behind the center, Harbeson said.

The horses’ health conditions — arthritis for Saffron, and visual impairment for Sage — make the two-acre-per-horse ordinance impractical, Harbeson said. She included a letter from the horses’ veterinarian, Dr. Amy Pike, testifying to this.

Harbeson said horse droppings are removed from the facility weekly. No complaints about smell had ever been lodged to her by clients, staff or neighbors, she said.

Her most emotional appeal, however, addressed concerns made in August that the horses were abused.

“It is very insulting, irresponsible and offensive to me that anyone would say that I am abusing these animals,” Harbeson said.

She noted extensive expenses she has undertaken to pay for veterinary care arising from the two horses’ individual health conditions.

Following Harbeson’s statement, Runyon spoke on behalf of 19 College Park residents in attendance.

“We want to enjoy our neighborhood, inside or outside our houses,” he said. “We pay taxes and have a common interest in keeping our living conditions pleasant.”

Runyon said the facility gives off a “heavy stench” in the summer, and flies often invade community cookouts and other outdoor functions.

“The flies may have been on horse manure before landing on your food,” he said. “This could be a health department concern.”

Runyon presented the council with a log from Stanly County Communications recording seven calls for horses having escaped the pasture, before describing Harbeson as an “interloper.”

After having learned of the complaints lodged to the council in August, Harbeson and staff had gone from door to door in College Park, surveying residents on their support, non-support and concerns about the facility. She then formulated a map indicating residences where homeowners had expressed support and presented this to council as part of her earlier statements.

“We don’t need outsiders and interlopers coming in and pitting neighbor against neighbor,” said Runyon, who also expressed displeasure toward a Charlotte TV station for having done a broadcast report on the situation one day earlier.

In closing, Runyon asked council to “prevent encroachment on our well-being, happiness and property value.”

After hearing from Harbeson and Runyon, Mayor Ronnie Michael asked city attorney David Beaver to address legal implications of the situation, specifically whether the adoption of ordinance revisions on Aug. 5 would be considered retroactive (requiring immediate compliance with the changes) or prospective (allowing noncompliance created by ordinance changes to be “grandfathered”).

“If the facility is operating in compliance with an existing ordinance, and a change in that ordinance puts it in noncompliance, the facility is normally allowed to continue operation as long as it does so without altering or changing its use,” Beaver said. “However, that does not preclude issues such as a nuisance, like smell or flies, from being considered separately.”

Council members proceeded to discuss whether the issue of “grandfathering” had been discussed during the Aug. 5 meeting.

“Looking at the Aug. 5 minutes, there is no verbiage of anything being ‘grandfathered,’ ” Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Sue Hall said.

Planning Services Director Kevin Robinson said he met with Harbeson prior to relocation her business from New London to Albemarle.

“She was in compliance with all ordinances at that time,” he said.

“Maybe we should just move the city limits in so the county has to deal with this,” Councilwoman Shirley Lowder said.

Fifteen unannounced delegations proceeded to speak, 14 of which expressed support for allowing Creative Counseling to continue operations at the West Main Street site.

Carla Shepherd of Plantation Way in Albemarle suggested all parties involved meet and discuss ways to “meet in the middle,” while questioning the priorities of those seeking to remove the therapy horses.

“We have the most opioid overdoses in the state, and we have children who need this service,” she said. “Stanly County is in crisis and we are more concerned about smell than the future of our children.”

Shawna Burns of Charlotte said she drives from the Ballantyne neighborhood every week to bring her daughter to therapy at Creative Counseling. In doing so she shops at local businesses and eats at local restaurants.

“We spend dollars in your town,” Burns said, “but more importantly, are flies that important when we have kids in life and death situations who need this service? Don’t take this away from my daughter.”

Both Burns and Rachel Turner, who spoke next, questioned why the complaint was not presented directly from neighborhood residents to Harbeson. Turner also criticized the council for amending the ordinance without gathering information about Creative Counseling.

“You have learned a lot about (Creative Counseling) tonight,” Turner said. “Some of you have said you did not know all they do. Why was this question not asked before?”

Pam Lambert was the lone speaker supporting the College Park residents.

“I’ve lived there for about 20 years, before Creative Counseling relocated there,” she said, “and I know Ms. Harbeson and have worked with her. We are not seeking to close her business. We are just asking that it not negatively impact our neighborhood.”

Lambert, who is part of a walking group, reiterated her concern with smell.

“We walk in the mornings and afternoons,” she said, “and the smell is there.”

Following the comments, Councilman Dexter Townsend moved, with a second from Councilman Chris Whitley, that the council “grandfather” Creative Counseling’s operations. The motion failed 4-3.

If recent history is any indication, the failure of the motion may be a moot point, according to Beaver.

“At the time the business started operations in the city, it was in compliance,” he said, which was immediately disputed by a number of College Park residents.

“The number of horses she had at that time was allowed,” Robinson said.

Councilman Chris Bramlett then placed a motion requesting Beaver ask the UNC School of Government for an opinion. The motion passed unanimously.

“I’ll send this to the School of Government this week,” Beaver said.

He said a response may not be received in time for the Sept. 16 council meeting.

Toby Thorpe is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.