[The original version of this story misquoted Jan Johnson's analysis of stable finances. We've made a correction below. The Times regrets the error.]
After months debate, a new $21,470 fence for the Seven Lakes North horse pasture is a go. That amount, however, will replace only the fence along Seven Lakes Drive and the portion along the southwestern perimeter, where the pasture adjoins the Business Village.
The Board of Directors of the Seven Lakes Landowners Association [SLLA] approved the project in a four to one vote during their Thursday, May 28 Open Meeting, with Bob Racine opposed, Mark Gyure abstaining, and Mary Farley absent from the meeting.
A proposal to replace the entire perimeter was rejected in a tie-vote of the previous Board of Directors. The information packet for the meeting referred to the approved project as "Phase 1," but the motion by President Chuck Leach only sought authorization for $21,470.
A round post fence with three round rails will be installed in place of the existing split rail fence, with the posts set at a height of four feet six inches.
Diversity of opinion
Though it was ultimately approved, the fence proposal continued to spawn vigorous debate.
"The existing fence is in constant need of maintenance," Community Manager Ray Sohl said. "You are going to have constant cost to maintain a fence that doesn't meet high standards, and is continually falling down."
Sohl said there had been "ten fences issues in the past fourteen months, including several in which horses escaped." Three years ago, he said, SLLA horses escaped and were found miles away on NC Highway 73, eating peaches in an orchard.
Director Greg Lishawa said the SLLA's own veterinarian had recommended building "the biggest, strongest fence that we could afford."
Lishawa said the fact that the fence had been debated in several meetings meant the Association's minutes contain a record of those conversations. Should an escaped horse cause property damage or injury, Lishawa said, the Association's liability would be increased because "we knew about this and decided not to do anything about it."
Director Bob Racine argued that what was needed was better maintenance of the old fence, not a new fence.
"Maintenance has not been the priority that it should have been," he said.
In addition, Racine said that many of the "fence issues" alluded to by Sohl were the result of factors that could not be avoided by the presence of a new fence, including rails knocked down by falling limbs during an ice storm, vehicles crashing into the fence, and children opening the pasture gate to let horses escape.
Leach noted that NC state law holds "livestock keepers" liable for damages caused by their animals, and that liability varies based on whether they neglected to take reasonable measures to contain the animals and "if the damages were a foreseeable result of their negligence."
"Knowing that the fence was exceptionally low . . . and knowing that it lacks strength," Leach said, "would fit the legal definition of negligence."
Director Gyure asked why, if the liability risk is so great, the proposal did not include the entire fence.
"We are addressing a key area," Leach replied.
Asked to provide the Finance Committee's recommendation on the proposal, Gyure expressed concern that it was an unbudgeted capital expense.
"We have come up against some unforeseen expenses already, and we are not yet even a full month into this fiscal year's budget," he said.
On the other hand, Gyure noted that the existing fence is "not really a livestock fence," but rather "a boundary fence, for appearances."
Residents weigh in
Residents weighed in on the proposal during the public comment session early in the meeting.
The meeting packet noted that the standard recommended height for horse fences is five feet. Resident George Temple pointed out that the proposed fence would have posts six inches short of that standard and the rails wood likely be a foot below standard.
Jan Johnson said she had reviewed the finances of the stables and found they had cost the Association $237,000 over two three years.
"Are the stables even viable?" she asked. "To me it is a bottomless pit."
Phil Thingstad said one of the things that had attracted him to Seven Lakes was the availability of horses for his children and grandchildren to ride.
"I'm glad you're going to put up a fence," he said, "at least on the sides that don't border our own property. I think that is prudent, not only for the safety of the horses, but it greatly reduces my liability as a homeowner. Thanks for doing that and for keeping the horses."
Jackie Coger also advocated for the new fence, and for keeping the stables. Noting that she had mentored many children through the 4H program, Coger said, "Not one of my children got into any trouble, because they were always at the end of a leash or a lunge line. The horses may cost us money, but our children and our grandchildren reap the benefit."
Summer Stables Staffing Approved
In other stables-related action, the Board voted unanimously to approve an expenditure of up to $3,000 for part-time help at the stables during the busy Summer season.
Additional funds were made available in the Recreation budget when a resident donated money to pay for the July 4th fireworks display.