Sunday afternoon horse races that have become beloved entertainment for spectators -- and a hated source of noise for neighbors -- are now the first McHenry County events to be banned by the Planning and Development department in at least a decade.
And impending changes to the county's ordinances could prohibit the races from resuming once the current yearlong ban expires.
Luís Méndez Jr., part owner of Poker de Ases Ranch and Training Center in Union, has been fighting to hold quarter horse training exercises on his family's farm since 2009 when the business purchased the property in a rural subdivision on West Union Road.
In addition to the hoops one must jump through when holding any large event -- health and fire department inspections, detailed parking plans, arrangements for on-site security -- Méndez has dealt with constant criticism from neighbors who have been in continued communication with county officials.
Méndez said people have been looking for a way to ban the events since they started, and on May 27, they found a way.
Why the ban
The last event was permitted to run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 27 at the ranch, 18718 W. Union Road. A jockey in the last race fell off his horse and was badly injured when it trampled him. Based on the time of the 911 call, officials concluded the final race was held after the permitted 7 p.m. ending time.
After hearing neighbor complaints about prior events running too long, the Planning and Development Department had inserted a condition into the temporary use permit that event times would be strictly enforced, and any violation would come with a one-year suspension. B
ut when the Planning and Development Department denied a permit for a proposed July 1 event -- and any future events until May 2013 -- owners felt the consequences were too harsh.
"A 12-month sanction is incredibly excessive," Méndez said.
Proceeds from the races -- admission is $25 for men and free for women and children -- help Méndez keep up the farm and add to revenues from training and boarding horses.
Matt Hansel, deputy director of Planning and Development, said in his 12 years working in the department, this is the first sanction issued for violating temporary use permit conditions.
And the sanction was issued, in large part, because of pressure from Mendez's neighbors such as Steve Frazier, who lives on Dunham Road just northeast of the ranch.
Frazier's opposition to the events began before Méndez's purchase of the property; races under previous ownership included live bands and children's activities.
Frazier has filed noise complaints with the police, but without a noise ordinance has relied mostly on appeals for relief to the county board.
Frazier is one of two especially vocal neighbors, and he has spoken at committee meetings and called board members about the size of the crowds, litter left behind, spectators trespassing on his land and noise.
While Frazier said the litter and trespassing have lessened in the last two years, he is still extremely frustrated with the disruption to his quiet Sunday afternoons.
"It's like having a carnival in your backyard every holiday," Frazier said. "It's just not what we moved to the country for."
Horse racing in McHenry County
Poker de Ases is not the only stable running quarter horse races in the county. Tomlin Stables on Tomlin Road in Marengo functions in much the same way, drawing similar crowds to its events without vocal opposition from the relatively few neighbors living nearby. But the Union Road races -- and the neighborhood dislike fostered under prior owners -- are at the heart of changes made to county policy.
According to Hansel, there was never a limit to the number of temporary use permits allowed in a single year, but the former owners of the ranch asked for so many in a row that the code enforcement officer decided the activity was too much like a business.
The former owners sold the farm instead of getting a conditional use permit like the owners of Tomlin Stables are applying for now. The conditional use would allow for more events and eliminate the need to apply for temporary use permits before each one.
Following up on concerns by neighbors like Frazier, the county amended its zoning ordinance to say events needing temporary use permits must be at least two months apart and happen no more than six times per year, among other conditions.
The reason Poker de Ases and Tomlin Stables must stick to these limits is because of the way the county has chosen to interpret its ordinances.
Méndez has argued that because his is a registered stable, he should be able to have unlimited events based on the ordinance regulating such stables. The law says horse shows and related activities may be conducted by right -- without a temporary use permit -- provided that off-street parking is available for all visitors.
Méndez's largest events have drawn more than 1,500 people, but there is space for all of them to park on the farm near the 350-yard straight track.
Hansel said the county decided the races at Poker de Ases are "outdoor entertainment events" not allowed without permits -- which require a formal proposal before each event -- because of their magnitude.
Other horse shows in the county for dressage or jumping draw far fewer people, with spectators often coming only when they have a connection to the horse or rider.
"There's the idea out there that, because the magnitude is so much greater, that the different controls need to be put into place," Hansel said.
The size and style of the races on Union Road combined with complaints about them have prompted changes to county permitting over the years, even though the sheriff's office has said the events were well-run and crowds were kept in check.
In March of 2011, the planning and development committee proposed limiting equine shows and events to one per year.
But in rural McHenry County, equine shows are more than just the occasional event -- and that proposal alarmed people in the business who feared it would put some stables out of business.
One of those who got involved in the effort to fight the move was Rachel Kane, a licensed veterinarian and owner of Entropy Farm. She provides boarding, training, breeding and veterinary services on her 55-acre property in Woodstock.
The response stopped the planning and development committee's proposal in its tracks, but Kane still has her eye on the county board because of impending changes outlined in a Unified Development Ordinance -- a draft of which was originally supposed to be distributed in March.
"It could very well impact the horse industry in an enormous way," Kane said.
The future for horses
The unified ordinance, which integrates the zoning laws, subdivision regulations and other development regulations into a single document, is hundreds of pages long. The Planning and Development Committee and Zoning Board of Appeals should see it in draft form by next month, according to Hansel, with public hearings following committee review.
Frazier is not alone in hoping the unified ordinance will put the issue of horse racing to rest.
Ersel Schuster, a Planning and Development Committee member and county board member from McHenry's most rural district, thinks the owners of Poker de Ases Ranch and Training Center are forcing the racing events into an area where they don't belong.
Schuster spent 25 years raising and racing thoroughbred horses. Comparing the training work she has known to the exhibition races that Méndez said train quarter horses for more professional circuits has left Schuster a passionate opponent of the Poker de Ases events.
Like Frazier, Schuster's complaints go back to the previous owners of the ranch.
"They took what was a true training facility and turned it into a huge operation that basically had nothing to do with training," Schuster said, questioning whether the horses are actually moving on to more formal races.
According to Méndez, the horses that race at Poker de Ases go on to run at Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park in Indiana or Prairie Meadows Racetrack in Iowa. Méndez said owners want to find out how their horses do before they take them to professional tracks.
The fact that such large crowds come to enjoy the exercises is what neighbors and Schuster are opposed to.
But Entropy Farm owner Rachel Kane, who holds events that draw smaller crowds, said the county moved to regulate horse activity in response to neighbor complaints when the horses were never the problem. It was the spectators that were the problem, she said.
"In the realm of things, I don't know how you can mandate that the horse racing is illegal but yet having a horse show is legal," Kane said. "I don't see the difference between running a horse in a straight line versus running it around some barrels."
County board member Mary McCann agrees. Crowd control is what she has wanted to focus on all along. She said it's a broader issue that stretches beyond these horse races, which she has argued from the beginning should not be separated from other equine events for regulation.
McCann used to ride horses and, like Schuster, is familiar with how horse shows operate.
Méndez said the root of this whole issue -- and the elephant in the room -- is the fact that his races draw a predominantly Mexican crowd to a mostly white community, and McCann said cultural differences certainly play a part.
"It's just a wholly different event than we're used to in our areas," McCann said.
With the Unified Development Ordinance, county officials will have the chance to decide just how to handle quarter horse racing -- and horse events in general -- in an area with one of the highest concentrations of horse ownership in the country.