After hearing roughly an hour of often impassioned public comment at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night, the Half Moon Bay City Council voted unanimously not to renew an agreement it has with Sea Horse Ranch. The council hopes to reach a deal that mollifies all beach users before the agreement expires in December 2020.

The council was motivated primarily by a perceived increase in the amount of horse manure that has appeared on Poplar Beach, where the longstanding business takes its customers, as well as concerns surrounding accelerated cliff erosion due to horse access in the area.

City staff and council members say their intention is to take these factors into account while crafting a new agreement with the equestrian facility. City representatives say they hope a new agreement will make all, or at least most, of the community happy with the various ways the beach is used.

Much of the equestrian community in the audience — which filled the Ted Adcock Community Center — said they thought their privileges for riding horses on the beach were under attack. Many fiercely supported Sea Horse Ranch Executive Director Willa Chapman, and a few claimed that publishing the council agenda on Friday did not provide the community with enough notice of the city's interest in not renewing the agreement.

Chapman herself stated that, after receiving three working days notice, she asked for the topic to be pushed to a mid-January meeting in order to allow more time for the research the shift. She claimed that the lack of adequate notice was a Brown Act violation and, because of the lack of time, she would keep her comments specifically tied to the horse manure issue which, she noted, was “the gear driving the bus.”

In the initial 2011 agreement, Sea Horse Ranch is clearly identified as responsible for picking up the horse droppings where horse traffic crosses the beach entrance and exit points, but the agreement doesn't state who is responsible for picking up the manure on the actual beach, which is owned and maintained by the city.

Chapman says that she took it upon herself to have her staff pick up the droppings off the beach on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and later added Saturday and Sunday cleanups after hearing about complaints about the manure that were reaching the city.

“We have kind of been vilified for not cleaning up the beach when, in fact, we are not contractually obligated to do so,” Chapman said at the meeting.

Chapman says she has offered to bring in an additional staff person with the sole responsibility of picking up horse poop at Poplar Beach, but says that offer has landed on deaf ears.

For their part, councilmembers largely acknowledged an appreciation of the small-town charm the horses provide along with tourist dollars the equestrian activity brings.

In the two years before the contract expires, council members say they want to balance the interests of various beach users.

For example, as one audience member stated in public comment, the nutrient-rich manure on the beach could contribute to harmful red tides.

Councilman Adam Eisen said that could adversely affect the local fishing community that relies on the health of the ocean for its business.

“There's nothing I like better than looking at my window (and seeing the horses),” said Half Moon Bay Mayor Deborah Penrose. “It's exciting, it's wonderful, it tickles me to death. ... (We want) to reach an agreement that works for everybody.”

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