s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

Horse enthusiasts with big dreams are moving forward with their idea to build a $200 million everything-under-the-sun equestrian event center on ranch land in southern Sonoma County.

The sprawling project, on 250 acres of rolling pasture on a 1,200-acre spread west of Cotati, would be a world-class venue intended to attract national and international competitions, supporters say.

The grandness of the vision is matched by the hurdles that must be overcome, not the least of which are financial, environmental and governmental. Yet the promoters seem undeterred.

It would be an economic engine for the area and would restore Sonoma County to what they say is its rightful place at the center of the horse world. Twice in the past two centuries the county has held that honor, they said, but access to local venues and support for equestrian sports has withered in recent decades.

"Everything &‘horse' starts here," said Karl Bastian, a leading promoter and past president of the Sonoma County Horse Council. Studies have shown that the horse industry, including boarding, training and other business, has been one of the county's top farm sectors, he said. "It's going to happen again."

Versions of the idea have been passed around in horse circles for years. The latest package has drawn interest from a group of ranching families whose properties occupy much of the land between Meacham and Roblar roads north of the county's central landfill.

The list of facilities envisioned for that land is lofty.

Up to 17 outdoor show arenas, polo fields, an exercise track, museum, restaurants, shops, a conference and equine surgical center and campgrounds would occupy the developed area. It would be anchored by a "coliseum," a covered stadium of still undetermined size.

The campus would support up to 80 full-time jobs and generate between $65 million and $250 million annually in business and taxes for the county, supporters said. They based those numbers on figures associated with other equestrian centers such as the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, which is about the same size.

At least 700 acres of the center would be preserved for riding trails and would be open to the public.

County planners, who have had only informal discussions with project organizers, said the plans were unprecedented. The 250-acre building footprint alone — 70 acres larger than the county fairgrounds — would make it the largest commercial development on the drawing board.

Construction would be staged over five to seven years. The estimated price tag, not including the land purchase, is $205 million.

Project supporters conceded the plans were ambitious.

"No question about it," said Henry Trione, a local financier, philanthropist and avid horseman.

Trione donated an undisclosed amount of seed money to the project. But he and other supporters said they wonder where the rest of the funding will come from.

Money is tight and business is down even in the relatively well-off horse world, said Dr. Gene Harlan, a large-animal veterinarian in Cotati.

"It's a little hard to imagine they can do all that," he said.

Project leaders would not say if they had wealthy backers. They said they plan to seek funding from "philanthropists, foundations and government grants."

Planned approaches include Congressional earmarks — currently out of favor in Washington, D.C. — and a partnership with the county's taxpayer-funded open space district on the land acquisition, they said.

Billionaire vintner and racehorse owner Jess Jackson has not been pitched in on the project, they said.

"The elephant in the room is truly the amount money this will cost," Bastian said.

Skeptics stopped short of calling the project far fetched. But they say they can't picture something so large, with all of its associated impacts on traffic and water, fitting into the mostly-undeveloped south county dairy belt.

"I'm not sure Sonoma County needs that," said former county supervisor and Petaluma environmentalist Bill Kortum.

But project promoters are unbowed. They say the horse center will have its own self-contained wastewater system and solar power source. Traffic impacts will be minimized by having an entrance on Meacham Road and an exit on Roblar Road.

"I don't understand why this wasn't done before. It's such a no-brainer," said Wanda Smith, a former computer-tech manager and horse enthusiast who heads up the California Equestrian Park and Event Center, the newly-formed nonprofit group driving the project.

The group began a public rollout campaign last year. The reception among dairy-belt landowners, community groups and elected officials has been "amazing," Smith said.

"The majority of feedback I get is, &‘How can I help?' as opposed to them rolling their eyes," she said.

Several south county landowners off Roblar Road confirmed their interest in the project. Among that group are two landowners who opposed the 70-acre rock quarry recently approved for the area. They are Sue Buxton, who leads a quarry opposition group and serves on the horse group's board, and Kathy Tresch, whose family's dairy ranch is next to both sites.

"Something like (the horse park) could be useful in the area," Tresch said.

Her neighbors Jim and Joan Tunzi, long-time cattle ranchers, own one of the four ranches being eyed by center organizers.

The Tunzis said they haven't signed any formal agreements, but they have added their names to the plan as an alternative to subdividing the 350-acre ranch for development, an option they also are pursuing.

"It's either going to be houses, or it's going to be something else," said Joan Tunzi, 71. "When this dropped out of the sky it was kind of exciting."

The Camozzi, Gray and Mildred families own the other ranches sought for the project. A representative of the Camozzi family declined to comment, while members of the Gray and Mildred families couldn't be reached.

Letters from each of those families were in a 70-page proposal submitted last week to the county's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

The hope is that the taxpayer-funded district would help purchase the ranches, said Smith, the horse center leader.

"I've told them, &‘We need your help to make this happen,'" Smith said. "They told me they were 100 percent behind it."

Not true, said Misti Arias, conservation program manager for the Open Space District. She said county officials turned down a previous proposal from Smith because of the intensity and size of development proposed.

The district also is not interested in outright purchase of property in the area, she said.

The county will look at the new proposal to see if the open space merits a conservation easement purchase.

But whether any money exists for such a deal and whether it would be appropriate to partner with a commercial venture such as the horse park are unanswered questions, Arias said. Similar ranchland easements have cost between $3,000 and $10,000 an acre, district records show.

"You don't want the perception that the district is helping the conversion of ag land in the area," she said.

The horse center's leaders say that, if all goes well, they might be submitting their first documents to the county planning department later this year.

Those most familiar with the process, including current and former county elected officials and planners, say the proposal would face numerous hurdles.

Because of the land-use changes involved, review of the project would likely take years. County supervisors would need to change the area's current agricultural zoning and amend the general plan, planners said.

"It's an intriguing project," said Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes the site. He said he has not met with the center's leaders, and when that happens, his main question will be: "Is this someone's pipe dream, or is it something that can be delivered?"

But project leaders say the public support they're gathering could carry them through the process.

"This is an absolute excellent project for the county," said Bastian. "Who knows, when that ball starts to roll, where it stops rolling?"