By Jennifer M. Keeler for ELCR
As the nation’s economy continues to struggle, cities across the country face unprecedented budget woes and difficult decisions as to how limited public funds will be spent. But a recent budget proposal in St. Louis County, Missouri laid the groundwork for nothing less than a political soap opera worthy of its own afternoon television time slot. Amidst public outrage, the organized and efficient mobilization of a local horseman’s group played a vital role in preserving the very venues all local citizens depend upon and treasure.
The Wildwood Horse Owners and Acreage Association (WHOAA) was organized in 2005 with a mission to preserve the agricultural lifestyle in Wildwood, a city located on the western edge of St. Louis County, through public education and land conservation. With an area of about 66 square miles (2nd largest city in Missouri by land area) and a population of close to 35,000 people, Wildwood has traditionally been an area for horse lovers and was originally established with an eye towards preserving farms and green space as city sprawl approached. But since 1980, agricultural land has been disappearing in Wildwood at the rate of four acres a day, and WHOAA’s vision is for Wildwood to remain a haven for equestrians and those with a love of the land. As of December 2008, WHOAA was incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation in Missouri and joined the Equine Land Conservation Resource as a Conservation Partner.
An Idea is Born
The idea for the forming of WHOAA originated from a dispute over construction of an indoor arena. A local horsewoman purchased several lots in a horse-friendly community in Wildwood and proceeded to build an arena for her personal use. Suddenly, once-cordial neighbors objected. As tensions escalated, the city council proposed a new ordinance to place dramatic limits on the building of equine barns and related structures. Paula Sewell, owner of a small farm in Wildwood with her husband David, was caught by surprise. “We had no idea this was going on. One of our neighbors just happened to overhear this during a meeting,” Sewell explained. “We couldn’t let this happen! So I began contacting other area horsemen asking them for support, attended city and council meetings, and even coordinated protests which attracted widespread media coverage. At first the city council didn’t want to listen to us but ultimately we were able to work with the council for a more reasonable solution regarding restrictions on new construction of agricultural buildings. We were darn lucky that we caught this.”
This issue made Sewell realize that luck was not enough, and that an organized effort was needed by local horsemen in order to stay on top of issues affecting their sport and lifestyle. Sewell, now President of WHOAA, rallied a network of local volunteers who are united in their love of the land and are dedicated to saving Wildwood land for equestrian and agricultural activities. “WHOAA speaks for equine interests because quite often other people don’t ‘get it’,” Sewell said. “So we have to stay together and be vigilant.” Seeking to educate citizens and community leaders about agriculture and rural living, WHOAA shares information about rural and equine-related issues and events with about 150 core members, in addition to a large e-mail distribution list.
As the primary equestrian voice for Wildwood, WHOAA’s work extends beyond riding by advocating for other local agricultural interests such as cattle and poultry, as well as a dedicated outreach program to educate non-equestrian citizens about horses. “Whenever there’s a community event, we’re there,” noted Sewell. “We want to be a part of the community and expose people to horses. Unfortunately, there is the lingering perception that horse people are wealthy bullies, and we’re working to change that.” That work includes holding a popular country fair at Greensfelder Park. The fair affords the general public an opportunity to share in equestrian activities through pony rides, carriage rides, and demonstrations for various riding styles and disciplines. WHOAA members also hold fundraisers for construction of new area trails and improvements which benefit all users, including riders, bikers, and hikers.
Outdoor enthusiasts living in the St. Louis area have ready access to an enviable system of 38 parks with extensive trails for the enjoyment of hikers, runners, bikers, and roller sports. In addition, seven of these parks allow for equestrian use, including Greensfelder Park in Wildwood, which has a show ring, boarding stables, trail system, and serves as host of the American Competitive Trail Horse Association (ACTHA) National Championships. Also, nearby Queeny Park in Ballwin has become a haven for eventers and the site of local horse trials.
But storm clouds were brewing over city hall in the fall of 2011 as St. Louis County faced a big problem. In what administrators claimed was a “fiscal crisis”, County Executive Charlie
A. Dooley presented a budget proposal which would require the Parks Department to slash $4.3 million from its budget, close 23 parks, and eliminate 133 jobs. Of the seven parks with amenities for local equestrians, five of these were on the chopping block. Also in danger of closing was Lone Elk Park, home to free-roaming elk, deer, and bison, as well as a bird sanctuary. As for the fate of the animals, the county’s chief operating officer, Garry Earls, was quoted as saying, “We’d sell them to zoos or something.”
Administrators originally proposed to sell off park land to raise funds, only to discover that much of the land which had been donated to the park system over the decades by individuals (including area horsemen) had the protection of deed restrictions and covenants which prohibited the sale of all but six park properties to private individuals.
Instead, the plan was modified to “land bank” the parks -close the gates and let the grass grow until money was found to reopen them. The County also explored the possibility of transferring park land and the responsibility for their upkeep to other municipalities or even the state government.
What began as an unpopular proposal turned into a high-stakes chess match between Dooley and County Council members, who accused the County Executive of holding the parks hostage in order to pressure the council into supporting a tax increase. Budget shortfall estimates had varied wildly in the months leading up to the budget proposal, and Council members believed the county administration had exaggerated the budget problems and questioned whether there was a shortfall at all. At the very least, they called for other county departments to share more evenly in budget cuts, and were confident that alternatives could be found to keep the parks open.
A Call to Action
Amid the skepticism, public posturing, and threats made by county officials, citizens were outraged and panicked, resenting what they saw as political ploys and manipulation. Families who had given money and land to create parks and preserve green space, which they had believed would exist forever, saw the action as betrayal, while local conservationists worried about the kind of message the threatened closures would send, possibly jeopardizing future conservation efforts. In this era of instant communication and social media, residents and advocates wasted no time in taking matters into their own hands. In addition to extensive press coverage, the gathering of support via notifications sent by e-mail and Facebook led to a multitude of public rallies, petitions, and protests.
Thanks to valuable lessons learned about organization and communication since the original Wildwood indoor arena conflict in 2005, WHOAA leaders were also ready to quickly take action. Sending a constant stream of information through its digital network, WHOAA created flyers for equestrians to distribute, started petitions, and organized attendance by horsemen to council meetings, rallies, and protests. Even though WHOAA’s focus was on preserving Greensfelder Park in Wildwood, no other area communities had local equestrian advocacy groups, resulting in WHOAA embracing representation of all county parks. Joining forces with the Missouri Equine Council, ACTHA, local riding clubs and stables, Missouri Trail Blazing Magazine, the Open Space Council, and ELCR, WHOAA also worked with other user groups which would be affected by park closures, including hikers and bikers.
When attending the volatile council meetings, Sewell relied upon her favorite advice: keep sentimentality out of the argument. “When you have something like a serious budget crisis, talking about the emotions is not effective,” she explained. “When they talk money, you have to be prepared to talk money.” Sewell pointed out how closing the parks would actually make the county’s economic problem worse and further erode the tax base. Since people put a high value on living near parks, she emphasized how property tax revenue would decline even further if parks were closed and surrounding houses diminished in value and residents sold their homes to move to a new area.
Sewell also reminded county officials about the financial impact of local equestrian activity. Since Missouri is the third-largest producer of horses in the country, American Horse Council financial impact studies show that there are more horses per capita in St. Louis County than anywhere else in the state, so a great deal of revenue generated by equestrians stays in county coffers. By closing park facilities, horsemen will be forced to leave the county and possibly the state in order to pursue their sport. “Also, lifestyle is a major consideration for businesses looking to come to an area,” Sewell explained. “So you can’t attract new businesses and create jobs without having parks and green space to contribute to recreation and way of life. Studies show that the availability of outdoor recreation is a key factor in helping cities grow.”
Dodging a Bullet
Not only was the Council receptive to WHOAA’s arguments, it also seemed to resonate with the public and the press, culminating on November 15, 2011 when hundreds of protesters (including WHOAA members) rallied in support of the parks. Demonstrations were held both outside and inside county government headquarters, overflowing the council chambers. “Elected officials really hate an angrymob,” said Sewell. After listening to arguments, six of the seven council members vowed to block Dooley’s budget from passing, even if it meant failing to comply with a December 31 deadline for budget approval. Then, in early December, after a month of public outrage, Dooley withdrew the proposal to shutter the parks, claiming a compromise had been reached with members of the County Council to seek alternative cuts to balance the budget, and publicly admitted making a mistake.
While the St. Louis County Parks may be safe for now, economic belt-tightening will continue to plague local governments; therefore, there is always the possibility for the parks to face closure in the future. Dr. Scott King, Equine Products Manager for Bayer Animal Health and an ELCR Board member explained, “I used to live in Wildwood and the park system is fantastic: you can ride all day long and never cross the same trail, all within a county of nearly 2 million people. Closing these parks would have been tragic.” But for now, Sewell is pleased not only that equestrians will continue to enjoy the facilities, but also that horsemen were provided an opportunity to be heard. “We want government officials to understand our concerns and respect us,” she said.
WHOAA has set an outstanding example of how equestrians can work together to solve local issues and help ensure survival of their sport and lifestyle. “Get organized! Don’t wait until there’s a major crisis,” said Sewell. “Stay in touch with each other, and focus on common needs and the big picture -don’t get bogged down in petty differences such as various breeds or discipline backgrounds. Whether you’re an eventer, driver, trail rider, or whatever, one issue transcends all the differences: no matter what type of riding you do, you’ve got to have the land to do it on. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of people, it just takes a few people who are willing to work to make their voices heard.”
The Wildwood Horse Owners & Acreage Association (WHOAA) is a network of local people united in a love of the land and dedicated to saving land in Wildwood, Missouri for equestrian and agricultural activities. To learn more about WHOAA, visit their website.