Outraged Gavilan Hills residents say local horse trails blocked by expanding nursery business

GAVILAN HILLS, Calif. (KABC) -- For decades, residents in the rural Riverside county community of Gavilan Hills have used dirt roads and paths for hiking and trail riding.

But in recent years, they say many of their trails have been blocked off or destroyed by the operators of the ever-growing, 420-acre Altman Plants nursery.

"There's a trail we've been using for twenty years, and they've now gated it off," said resident Chris Herron, who lives on a property just north of the nursery. "They've closed off trails to the point where I can't access adjacent property that I own anymore by horseback."

Herron and a group of supporters rallied in front of a recent Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting, where they also spoke out during the public comment period begging county officials to step in and protect their community.

"What they're doing is limiting access to my trails which is why I moved here," said resident Bonnie Starling. "What they've done is put fences up with barbed wire, and they're making it very difficult for us to get out and enjoy."

But are the trails the residents are referring to actually trails? They seem to think so, and the Riverside County general plan has a map with dotted lines showing various regional and community trails.

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"We were lucky there was enough cowboys in town. Otherwise we would've had a much larger mess," the trooper said.


However, Riverside County First District Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said it's not that simple.

"The challenge is, a lot of people think that because it's a line on a map it means it's already a trail, and legally that's just not the case," said Jeffries. "There are of course private property rights that we must respect until we acquire that right of way."

Residents in the area have other complaints about the large nursery. Their complaints include the kinds of pesticides they use, bright lighting throughout the night, and alleged illegal grading that they say contributed to runoff that destroyed parts of their property during a large storm.

"I live under a constant cloud of dirt from their earthmovers," said resident Marjorie Moore.

The Altman property was cited for illegal grading back in 2019. Officials there subsequently applied for and were granted proper permitting, which included increasing the size of a retention pond to hopefully prevent future runoff issues.

Residents are also complaining about a gate that property employees installed across a county road they have previously used for trail riding.

Jim Hessler, the director of west coast operations for Altman Plants, initially told Eyewitness News according to their parcel maps there is no easement for that particular county road, and they had the legal right to install the gate. He said the reason for the gate was not to necessarily block roads, but to enclose their property where they say they've been repeatedly targeted by thieves and vandals.

But Jeffries has indicated that the gate was indeed placed across a county road.

"The documentation that county staff has in the planning department indicates that they made a mistake," said Jeffries. "The easement does continue beyond their gate, and they need to move their gate."

When asked about whether they made a mistake, Hessler said the matter is under review.

"If we were wrong and the easement does extend farther west than we interpreted from our title reports then we absolutely would remove that gate," he said.

But removing the gate likely won't be the end to the controversy.

"I would like them to stick to their original trail plan," said resident Bonnie Starling.

The subject of what are and what aren't trails is a complicated matter. Gary Andre, who mapped many of Riverside county's trails over the years, say the trails indicated on the county's general plan are indeed trails, and many of them are on existing easements.

A parcel map of the property obtained by Eyewitness News indicates easements along the sides of county roads that residents used for trails, as well as a dirt road across part of the Altman property that's also been fenced off.

However, Riverside county planning officials have indicated to Eyewitness News that those easements are for various public utilities, and aren't dedicated for public use, a trail or even a road.

But neighbors continue to assert that the roads they've used as trails -- and that have now been blocked off by nursery employees -- are indeed trails that should remain open just as they have for years.

Eyewitness News asked an Altman Plants official whether the company would consider granting an easement for the areas in question that would dedicate them for trail use.

"That would be a very big discussion," said Hessler. "I don't think the county is able to just designate something as a trail. They would need to request an easement for a trail.

"Then the question is, who would bear responsibility for the maintenance of those trails? Who would bear the liability if something happened on one of the trails? And how would security be handled on those trails?"

Jeffries said there doesn't appear to be an easy solution to this controversy.

"There's still going to be a lot of upset residents because this farming operation is in the heart of a rural residential community. And if you had to do it all over again, you would do everything you could to make sure it wasn't there to begin with."

But Jeffries said we're way past that point.

"It's there, it's established," he said. "They have property rights, as do the neighbors. And we have to find that balance to make everybody as happy as we can."
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