Placitas area residents got some answers about a new Sandoval County ordinance banning the feeding of free-roaming horses going into effect Sept. 1. But they didn’t get answers to others at yet another contentious meeting between residents and county officials at the senior center in Placitas on August 1.
At one point, two people walked out of the meeting in disgust, one woman yelling an explicative and bidding farewell with her finger on the way out the door.
A handful of protesters held signs opposing the ordinance on the roadside and a woman handed out black armbands at the entrance “to signify the grief for what’s happening to the wild horses.”
Two sheriff’s deputies were there to make sure the 60 or so people behaved at the meeting, put on by the county to answer questions about the new ordinance – and to discuss other ways to address what the county describes as a safety issue.
“We’re out there taking bullets; I’m up here taking hits,” said Deputy County Manager John Garcia, who led this and previous meetings on the subject, but threatened to discontinue them. “We can keep on having meetings, but we have to come up with solutions.” Garcia said adding signage cautioning drivers and reducing the speed limit were “on the table” as mitigating measures. He said one solution that a lot of people would agree with was to create a wild horse sanctuary, but that wasn’t something that could happen anytime soon.
Garcia emphasized that he and representatives from the Planning & Zoning, Community Services, and Sheriff’s offices were there to keep communication lines with the community open.
To the relief of many in attendance, Garcia said the county would not initially enforce a ban on providing water to horses. Previous meetings clarified that water was covered under the ordinance as a “nutrient.”
Addressing a problem
The debate over the feeding of wild horses, which has gone on for years if not decades, has incited emotions and led to name calling and hard feelings among residents. Opponents of the ordinance say it is inhumane and an infringement of their property rights. Those in favor support it as a safety measure, while some argue that wildlife shouldn’t be treated like pets.
In May, the Sandoval County Commission approved an ordinance that restricted the feeding of the approximately 150 wild horses that mostly roam open spaces near Placitas and the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. But the county says the horses are being drawn into residential areas and onto roadways, lured by handouts from humans. The Sheriff’s Office proposed the ordinance as a public safety measure. Three wild horses have been struck by vehicles on NM 165 in the past two years and had to be put down.
The ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to feed the horses. Violators are subject to a $300 fine and/or 90 days in jail.
The ordinance does allow for 501(c)(3) non-profit groups with experience managing horses to apply for a permit at a cost of $25 annually, and many of the questions had to do with that.
To the chagrin of many, Garcia informed the group that permitted organizations would also take on liability, which has been the county’s concern all along.
Garcia the ordinance was necessary to protect the county against liability. “One person gets hurt or killed, how do you explain that to the family when you knew this was an issue?” he said.
Garcia noted that wild horse feeding is an issue in just two places in the state: Ruidoso and Placitas. Legislation meant to begin regulation of wild herds failed at the statehouse but could be brought back again.
Many residents expressed frustration with the county over its handling of the matter. One woman accused Garcia of bringing a hostile, arrogant attitude to the meeting. Others said the county wasn’t being transparent about how their taxpayer dollars were being spent.
Garcia wouldn’t say who was currently serving as a consultant to manage the herd, saying they were already being “harassed.” Nor would he disclose members of the committee who would be in charge of approving or rejecting feeding permits.
Some theorized that the county’s lack of transparency hides a plan to remove the horses to make way for more development and a highway. A few were also unhappy with SCSO Chief Deputy Allen Mills, who outlined for the group how the Sheriff’s Office would handle infractions. Mills refused to answer any questions, even when Garcia deferred to him on a question about what constituted a violation of the ordinance. “How are we supposed to know what’s a violation if you won’t tell us?” an audience member protested.
Mills did post his email address near the door and said he would respond to people that way.
In addressing the group, Mills said the Sheriff’s Office if a violation was reported to them, SCSO would make contact with the alleged offender and send them a “three-day” letter warning them of the infraction. If the behavior continued, SCSO would again make contact with the individual and collect evidence. A third time could leave to prosecution.
However, Mills said just like when a cop pulls you over for a traffic violation, they have discretion. The officer could just let it go with a verbal warning, he said. Late in the meeting, after “taking bullets” for more than an hour, Deputy County Manager Garcia exhibited frustration himself.
“We’re done playing games of gotcha,” he responded to one question. “We could stop having these meetings and just enforce the law. But we don’t want to do that.”
In the end, Garcia said he wasn’t sure if they would hold more meetings.
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