Horses have long been a distinguishing feature of Barrington Hills, but could these four-legged residents prove to be the driving issue in the next village board election?
Many residents and officials on all sides of the ongoing debate over commercial horse boarding on residential property see political motivations, and not the technicalities of land-use zoning, as the driving force behind the controversy.
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Resident Jim Drury, who lives next door to a 60-horse commercial boarding operation, says the facility's imposition on his residential peace and quiet is clearly forbidden by existing village code regulating home occupation businesses.
Drury has tried through lawsuits, newspaper ads and official testimony to suggest that village officials are refusing to acknowledge this, and instead are pandering to the Riding Club of Barrington Hills and other equestrian interests.
But Village President Robert Abboud says the code has been long proven to keep the peace elsewhere in the village, and that an inspection of Drury's neighbor, Oakwood Farms, has confirmed its compliance with the law.
At the heart of the issue, Abboud says, is a neighbor dispute between Drury and Oakwood Farms owner Benjamin LeCompte that probably could be best resolved one-on-one.
"If he just worked with Mr. LeCompte, they could probably resolve the situation within a number of days," Abboud said.
Drury maintains that as a resident and taxpayer of the village, he should be afforded the protection of the law and not have to find a way to live with what he believes is an illegal operation.
Letter of the law
Though Drury concedes that LeCompte has the right to keep 60 of his own horses on the property, Drury said the number of employees and clients that visit his residential neighborhood most days clearly mark Oakwood Farms as a commercial enterprise.
Among the sections of the code Drury believes supports his cause is: "No home occupation shall generate significantly greater vehicular or pedestrian traffic than is typical of residences in the surrounding neighborhood of the home occupation."
A later clause, added in 2006, states that the commercial boarding and training of horses is permitted if employees are present and machinery operated only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., "notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this subsection."
Recent debate has focused on whether this means the hours of operation are the only regulation that applies to commercial horse boarding, or if every other home occupation regulation applies as well.
A year ago, Barrington Hills Zoning Board of Appeals Chairwoman Judith Freeman wrote a letter to Abboud and the board of trustees suggesting that the commercial boarding of more than 10 horses be regulated through special use permits. But amid the public debate of the past year, that was not pursued.
"I'm unconvinced that special use is an effective mechanism for quieting this minority faction of individuals, or solving any technical issues," Abboud said.
He also has been reluctant to take up a more recent suggestion from Drury and some others that the village begin regulating the number of horses per pastured acre on each property, which would be a first in Barrington Hills' history.
Abboud's position has the strong support of the Riding Club of Barrington Hills, club President Matt Yetarian said. This, he added, comes from obvious reasons rooted in the village's five-acre-minimum zoning, not any political ties between the club and Abboud, as has been alleged by some.
"Nothing could be further from the truth on that issue," Yetarian said. "That's just a sound bite being used by certain people to undermine Bob Abboud and the board of trustees."
Yetarian said most residents of Barrington Hills -- whether horse owners or not -- support the equestrian nature of the village because it strengthens the justification for its large-lot zoning.
"When it comes to five-acre zoning, you won't find anyone who wants to compromise that. And Bob Abboud has ferociously protected our five-acre zoning," he said.
But Drury believes the current controversy is exactly why a new village president and three new trustees will be drafting a stronger home occupation ordinance after next April's election.
"My opinion is that that issue is never going to go away," Drury said. "The fact is, what they're doing is illegal. If we let the village evade their responsibility in enforcing this, we will never be able to go back, so we need to get on top of this."
Donations, legal fees
In identifying political motivations, Drury points to $5,000 donations LeCompte made to each of the trustee candidates Abboud supported in the 2011 election -- Joe Messer, Karen Selman and Patty Meroni.
The candidates returned the donations but received a warning from the State Board of Elections after it was discovered that LeCompte had not been properly identified as the original source of the funds.
Nevertheless, even when that controversy was at its peak, the three candidates won by a significant margin.
Former plan commission chairman David Stieper, who also was a candidate in that election, continues to ask why the village spent $200,000 in a legal fight with LeCompte over commercial horse boarding at Oakwood Farms, but began defending it as a permissible home occupation business around the time of those donations.
Abboud said the fight was over a different issue -- LeCompte's earlier claim that the village had no authority to regulate horse boarding because it was a permitted agricultural use. The village prevailed in that lawsuit.
Stieper and former zoning board of appeals chairman Jonathan Knight continue to allege suspect behavior on the part of Abboud and other village officials on their website, preservebarringtonhills.com.
What they call the truth, Abboud calls political propaganda.
Either way, commercial horse boarding likely will be a major campaign issue next year.
But Yetarian, the president of the riding club, believes that the majority of residents won't be persuaded there's a problem. He said what he labels a vocal minority behind the issue won't overcome a silent majority at the polls.
One of the tactics being used by Abboud's opponents is conjuring up images of an unlimited number of horses on a five-acre lot, Yetarian said. That's something that doesn't really happen, he added.
"I think they're just getting warmed up in front of the April 2013 election," Yetarian said. "They're going to use horse boarding or nonresidents on Barrington Hills riding trails as fear mongering. But most residents, once the fog clears, are going to understand the motivation behind it and act accordingly."
Abboud, who weathered earlier criticism of the village's efforts to regulate outdoor lighting, also expects a rigorous election season.
"I think most people in the village realize this is an attempt to create a political wedge point that has nothing to do with reality," Abboud said. "Given the kind of body politic that we have, I don't see that these kind of things are going to end. It was lighting before; it'll be something else. I hope these experiences give our community some pause to look at these things with a critical eye."