For decades, horseback riders have used Soldotna city land along Kalifornsky Beach Road. But now that the Soldotna Equestrian Association is getting serious about developing recreation facilities on the site, the city may say "neigh."
Tonight the Soldotna City Council will consider the equestrians' request to extend its lease for 30 years. The current five-year lease expires in 2005.
At the previous meeting, the council tabled the proposal, citing reluctance to be saddled with such a long-term commitment.
The equestrians, on the other hand, feel pinched by lack of resources to expand. They want to apply for grants to fund construction of a covered arena that would allow year-round riding and space to share with groups such as 4-H and kennel clubs.
But funding sources won't pony up without the city's commitment.
"It's hard to get grants if you don't own any property," said Rhonda Harvey, a member of the association's board. "You have to start with the property and go from there."
She clarified that the group is not looking at bank loans, as was mentioned at the previous council meeting, but only grants.
The association has drawn up a site plan showing what members want to do. The schematic shows a 200-by-300-foot covered area to be built west of the existing stalls. No official cost estimates have been done, she said.
An equestrian organization on the south peninsula that already has land is lining up grants to build an arena in Homer. Sabrina Hillstrand, who worked on that funding request, has offered to help the central peninsula group.
"She would do some grant writing for us, if we could get this long-term lease," Harvey said. "She knows where to go for these things."
Hillstrand was out of state and could not be reached for comment.
Members of the Soldotna Equestrian Association are frustrated with the instability of their current site situation and even may consider moving to a different location, Harvey said.
"We don't want to invest any more money if we aren't going to be able to keep it," Harvey said.
The Soldotna Equestrian Association began informally when many current members were children. It officially incorporated in 1994. It has about 300 members, half of whom are children, she said.
The association maintains the rodeo grounds and has installed a riding rink, bleachers and holding pens. It organizes the annual Soldotna Progress Days Rodeo and sponsors ongoing family events such as horsemanship classes, chances for the handicapped to ride and "play days" with horse favorites such as calf roping and barrel racing.
Use of the current site by riders dates back to the earliest days of Soldotna's history. In the 1960s, there was a horse racing track on the site.
"There are three, four generations of people that have used it," said Paula Lovett, another member of the association's board. "I think a lot of people don't realize that."
Horses and livestock are big and awkward and require a lot of space, she said, but the equestrians value their traditional use and wholesome family recreation opportunities.
"We don't want to be a thorn in anyone's side," she said.
Board members sat down with Soldotna City Manager Tom Boedeker on June 20 to discuss options and the city council's concerns.
The city is in the early stages of brainstorming future development of property around the area leased to the equestrians, he said.
Their 14.5-acre tract is near the Little League ball fields, Centennial Park and the Soldotna Sports Center. All are part of a 192-acre area deeded from the state to the city in 1971 for public use.
People have tossed about ideas for the coming decades such as expanding the sports center, putting in meeting rooms, more ice space or an arts center. The city is preparing to hire a firm to study the feasibility of options, but no specific plans have been made yet.
"It is pretty nebulous," Boedeker said.
He and the equestrians also talked about the possibility of finding a different tract of public land somewhere in the area to serve as a new, more permanent home for the group.
He recommended that the association board make a presentation about their plans at tonight's meeting, which begins at 7:30 in Soldotna City Hall on Birch Street.
The crux of the problem is how to accommodate future growth of the diverse users in the area, including the sports center, campers and the Little League, Boedeker said.
The council will have questions about keeping cattle on the site and other potential activities that could affect other people using the areas.
"They have legitimate concerns," he said.
Boedeker said entering into a 30-year lease at this point may be "premature," but getting the council and the equestrians together to talk about what they can offer future generations of central peninsula riders is the first step.
"We are kind of feeling our way through here," he said.
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