SLO County cuts off ranch owner’s special events

Yielding to opposition from neighbors and an environmental group, the Board of Supervisors has told a rural Paso Robles woman she can no longer have weddings and other events at her ranch, a decision that she says will effectively put her out of business.

“They’ve impoverished me and ruined me,” Nicole Bennett, who owns Dancing Horse Ranch on 4201 Old Nacimiento Road, told The Tribune in a Friday telephone interview.

Supervisors on Tuesday pooh-poohed the effect on Bennett’s business, noting that she can still have her bed and breakfast, which they allowed her to expand from three guest rooms to four, as well as her horse-raising operation.

Bennett had sought permission originally to hold events of up to 300 people on her 41-acre property.

Over a series of planning department and commission decisions that took four years, the 300 dropped to 150, and a proposed campground fell away.

Earlier this year, the Planning Commission said 12 events with 150 people each would be acceptable.

However, supervisors, led by Jim Patterson and Bruce Gibson, said Tuesday she could not have any. Other supervisors, except for Katcho Achadjian, agreed.

The supervisors’ decision to disregard the advice of their planners marked a sharp turn from their decision a week earlier on San Miguel Ranch, when they went out of their way to adhere to their planners’ recommendations.

Tuesday’s decision followed a two-and-a-half-hour hearing at which Bennett told of spending years standing in lines, being told different things by different county planners and trying to adjust each time.

Bennett said she had spent tens of thousands of dollars on fire hydrants, water storage tanks, road improvements and other county requirements, including permit and other applications, in the belief — fostered, she said, by county planners — that she was abiding by the county’s rules and would have her business approved.

Having all her special events pulled, including weddings, therefore caught her off guard and constituted a bait and switch, she said.

Supervisors based their decision in part on complicated land use policies that say, in effect, that events must spring from the primary use of the property. In this case, that is bed and breakfast, they said, not weddings.

Supervisor Frank Me-cham, who represents the area, also said he worried about traffic entering and exiting Old Nacimiento Road to get to Dancing Horse Ranch. He said sooner or later there would be an accident.

Gibson said he believed that Bennett, who also raises horses, would be all right economically. He said the government has latitude to decide “what’s a fair economic return” while also protecting the rights of neighbors.

“We have wide discretion,” he said, in protecting “the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood.”

Neighborhood opposition played a part in the decision, as several people who live near Dancing Horse Ranch complained that their peaceful lives were being disrupted.

“It’s not fair that one person (should) take away our tranquility,” neighbor Stephanie Montgomery Perry said. “When I come home, I’m uneasy.” She said she can hear voices from Bennett’s operation.

Others said Bennett’s events generally break up between 10:30 and 11 p.m., and sometimes later — too late for their peace and quiet.

But Bennett said Perry and other neighbors were exaggerating the effects of her operation and accused Perry of conducting “a never-ending crusade against me, something like a modern-day witch hunt.”

An environmental group called the Ag Tourism Coalition also protested Bennett’s operation.

Finally, the discussion played out against a backdrop of impending changes to the county’s events ordinance.

Supervisors in January will plunge into serious discussions about who can have what events where and under what circumstances.

The issue encompasses many players, including but not limited to small business people such as wedding photographers, people who live near event sites, farmers, ranchers, winery owners and those who have moved from metropolitan areas to the Paso Robles countryside and don’t want their peace and quiet disturbed.