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Bounty Hunt : Los Angeles Targets Horse Owners Who Haven’t Paid Fees

Times Staff Writer

Thousands of horse owners who stable their mounts in Los Angeles but fail to pay annual license fees are about to be targeted in a “bounty hunt” to raise revenues for repairing equestrian trails, city officials said.

The Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation plans to send scouts door-to-door within a few weeks and possibly use helicopters to detect horses in stables and backyards.

The crackdown is needed to raise money for repairs to bridle trails in Griffith Park, the San Fernando Valley and other horse-keeping areas, which are in the worst shape they have ever been, said Richard Ginevan, chief parks supervisor for the city.

At least 7,000 horses are stabled in the city, according to Robert I. Rush, general manager of the animal regulation department. But only 1,700 are licensed as required by a 1973 law, department officials said.

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An ordinance adopted by the City Council on Dec. 8 increased the annual equine tax from $10 to $14 a horse. Owners who are notified and fail to pay the fee within 30 days will be assessed an additional $5 penalty, Rush said. The minimal penalty is merely an administrative charge, he said, and the real goal of the crackdown is to locate and license every horse in the city.

Many Unaware of Law

Thousands of horse owners are not aware of the licensing law, which has never been widely enforced, officials said. Post-Proposition 13 expenditure cuts forced the city to eliminate its license-inspection program in 1981, and since then fewer people have licensed their horses.

Revenues raised from the equine tax are placed in a trust fund to establish new trails and to maintain existing ones. But the annual revenues have been so low--only about $78,000 has been accumulated in the 13 years since the law was adopted--that the city has been unable to maintain its trails.

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City officials say that if all horse owners paid the tax, new trails could be built, such as one proposed along the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains linking Griffith Park with other horse-keeping areas in West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County, and extending east into the San Gabriel Valley.

A city policy adopted in 1968 proposed establishing about 81 miles of new equestrian trails throughout Los Angeles to tie in with other county, state and federal trails. Since then, officials said, only about 12 miles of trails have been opened, most of them in Porter Ranch and other San Fernando Valley areas.

Griffith Park in Disrepair

Ginevan said the city’s 55 miles of bridle paths “have deteriorated very badly over the years.” The most noticeable deterioration is on the 43 mijles of trails i n Griffith Park, according to city officials.

Many of the wooden rails that once lined bridle paths alongside golf courses and picnic areas in Griffith Park have fallen or been knocked down. White paint on the rails still standing has virtually disappeared.

Ginevan estimates that replacement of wooden rails in Griffith Park with sturdier pipe rails would cost $50,000 for materials alone. In 1983, the City Council allocated $15,000 from the trust fund to replace some rails in Griffith Park. Since then, the city has lacked the manpower to do any further work.

Riders have to be wary of fallen rails that spook horses and of discarded cans and bottles, said Myra Hazlett, who has operated the Verdant 4000 boarding stable in Atwater since 1979. During the rainy season, granite trails allowing riders from Atwater and Glendale to cross the concrete-lined Los Angeles River into the park frequently are washed out for weeks or months, she added.

“Its just getting worse and worse,” she said.

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Mounted rangers in the park said it is not unusual for horses that have thrown a rider to veer off the trails through broken barriers and race across golf courses and picnic areas. Last summer, for example, a frightened, riderless horse ran off a trail near the Los Angeles Zoo, crossed a parking lot and charged into the crowded main entrance of the zoo at a full gallop, said Ranger Lucia Ruta. No bystanders were seriously injured, she said.

Under the planned licensing crackdown, the city will hire private contractors to send teams of uniformed inspectors on a door-to-door search for unlicensed horses. The canvassing will target such horse-keeping communities as Atwater and, in the San Fernando Valley, the Hansen Dam area, Porter Ranch, Chatsworth, Granada Hills, Encino, Tarzana and Woodland Hills. The cost of canvassing will be paid from license revenues, Rush said.

A similar crackdown on owners of unlicensed dogs, which began last July, has raised $400,000 in license fees, a 19% increase, Rush said.

Rush said the department may also use helicopters to search for horses in backyards. “Horses are real easy to find and pretty hard to hide,” he said.

Sold at Animal Shelters

He urged horse owners to make “a New Year’s Resolution to get licenses for their horses.” The licenses can be purchased at any city animal shelter.

Gwen Allen, president of the Sylmar-based Equestrian Trails, a nationwide organization dedicated to preserving trails and encouraging the keeping of horses, concedes that the city’s equine tax has been widely ignored by horse owners.

“A lot of people haven’t felt real compelled to pay the tax because they didn’t know where the money was going,” she said. “If you get a bill in the mail, you pay it. But it is just not human nature to volunteer to pay a tax.”

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City officials say the tax, coupled with recent changes in zoning laws, protects horse owners by identifying and preserving property for horse keeping.

The new laws, for example, permit formation of a horse-keeping “K District” in an area as small as five acres rather than the 20 acres previously required. And developers who build next to horse-keeping property must separate new homes from old corrals. Previously, a builder could put up a house, then give notice that any corrals next to the property had to be removed.

Author of Changes

Los Angeles Councilman Hal Bernson, author of the series of changes, said the laws are designed to “encourage and preserve horse keeping in the city.”

Because of the changes, Allen said, some owners of horse property continue to pay an annual equine license fee, even if they no longer own a horse, simply to protect their rural zoning.

However, Allen also acknowledges that some people who own three or four horses buy licenses for only one or two. The law requires that all horses over the age of 12 months be licensed. Renewals are due on the one-year expiration date, the same as dog licenses.

Even though the number of equine licenses sold has dropped, equestrian groups say the horse population in the city is growing. Allen estimated that there are at least 10,000 horses in the city and more than 130,000 in the county, which is believed to have one of the largest equine populations in the nation, she said.

The county does not levy a tax on horses.

From Neighboring Cities

Many of the horses ridden in Griffith Park are stabled in Glendale and Burbank, Los Angeles city officials say, and Los Angeles receives no equine-tax money from those owners.

Burbank charges an annual equine tax of $10 a horse, which is used to pay for inspections of all stables in the city every other month, said Pam Vermeersch, a Burbank animal-control officer.

Glendale stopped licensing horses several years ago after it found the cost of administering and enforcing the program greater than the revenues collected, said Glendale City Clerk Merle Hagemeyer.

“It was difficult to track down the owners of horses boarded in the city,” he said. Instead, Glendale assesses a fee against stable operators based on their gross receipts.


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