Essex Officials Debate Zoning Amendment to Allow for Horses

ESSEX — A local engineer has his eye on buying a Main Street property in Ivoryton to keep two horses, and he’s asking the Essex Planning and Zoning Commission to decide whether horses belong in residential parts of town, or if they should be restricted to rural areas.

Thomas Metcalf is asking the Essex Planning and Zoning Commission to amend the Village Residential zone to allow for properties with 2 or more acres to keep horses for personal use.

Metcalf told the commission that, if the amendment was approved, he and his wife would buy about 3 acres of a 10-acre property at 2 Main St., Ivoryton, to build a house and keep their two horses.

The commission asked Metcalf to return with an amended petition that addresses some of the concerns raised during a public hearing on Tuesday night, including that the use would be allowed by special exception, rather than as an accessory use of the property.

Metcalf explained that his proposed language, allowing one horse for the first two acres of property and another horse for every additional acre, is based on recommendations from the North Carolina State Extension – though he said that there are varying opinions regarding how much space is needed to care for horses.

Metcalf identified 22 properties in the Village Residential zone that could potentially make use of the amendment. The zone covers the residential area surrounding Main Street in the Essex Village, and along the residential parts of Main Street in Ivoryton and Centerbrook.

Metcalf, who is a civil engineer and surveyor, said the property owners first contacted him to discuss options for how they could develop the property, and they went through different scenarios for how the lot could be subdivided.

He said the back section of the lot was perfect for keeping horses, and he and his wife decided to ask if they could buy a portion of the lot to build a house and keep their horses. Metcalf said they were happy to keep the space open rather than having it developed into houses.

Greg Ellis, a resident of the town, told commission member that he believes a minimum of 5 acres should be required to keep horses, and that it should only be allowed by a special permit, and not as an accessory use as Metcalf proposed.

The special permit would require anyone wanting to keep horses in the Village Residential district to obtain approval from the commission, and to give notice to neighbors of their plans.

Ellis said he was also concerned about the precedent the commission would set by approving a blanket zone amendment to facilitate a pending real estate transaction between Metcalf and the current owners.

Town attorney Larry Shipman said the problem with the application was that there was no means of enforcement included, so the commission would be putting a burden on the town health department to manage any manure issues. As it is written, someone could build a barn for their horses 30 feet from their property line without notifying the neighbor, he said.

“I think the commission would want to at least give more thought to putting some standards in that could be enforced, and not just saying this is an accessory use like a swingset,” he said.

Ellis said he and other neighbors were concerned about Metcalf’s plan in particular because of the waste the horses would produce. The amount of manure the horses would produce and the property’s proximity to their homes and backyards would affect both their property values and their enjoyment of their own properties, he said.

Asked what they would do with the horse manure to ensure it didn’t become a hazard or nuisance to the surrounding property owners, Metcalf said they would follow best management practices and would likely sell the manure to those who have a use for it, like gardeners. He said they don’t currently have any problems finding people willing to take manure off their hands.

“There is the full force, if you will, of the public health code to [deal with nuisances],” Metcalf said. “You’ll read some small farms that don’t take care of business and it gets sensationalized in the papers… that’s an extreme, abusive case. But generally, in my experience, I haven’t seen a problem.”

Karena Garrity, the publisher of the Tri-Town Patch who said she lives a few houses down from the proposed property, said she was in favor of the property being kept in a “farm-like” state, and that she would love to see horses when driving by.

“I understand everybody’s questions and concerns about it, however, I think you could have a neighbor in your backyard who has 10 barking dogs, which would be worse than two horses in my book,” Garrity said.


Editor’s note: A previous version of this story identified Greg Ellis as an abutter rather than as a resident of the town

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