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Rolling Hills Estates gives up control of one of the last public horse stables

Rolling Hills Estates, distinguished by tiers of three-railed white fencing and tree-lined streets, operates one of the last city-run horse stables in Southern California. Horse lovers travel near and far to enjoy its scenic beauty, and 90 miles of riding trails, on the South Bay’s Palos Verdes Peninsula. But after almost 50 years, the city of Rolling Hills Estates is handing off the reins of its horse stable.

Jan Spak feeds her horse “Mr. Big” piles of hay inside a stall at the Peter Weber Equestrian Center. The center’s wooden sides have some holes. It’s not as clean as she’d like, either. But other than that, Spak said she can’t complain. The green countryside in Rolling Hills Estates reminds her of the farm she grew up on about 100 miles west of Chicago.

“When we ride, we often say ‘I can’t even believe this is Los Angeles’ because it’s so beautiful, so quiet, so rich with streams and birds and trees," she said.

Horses and Rolling Hills Estates go together like a saddle and a bridle. Click on the city website and you’ll see horses, fence rails, trails and more horses.

Spak makes a daily journey to “the hill” from Santa Monica where she sells real estate. She said this stable is more welcoming than those closer to home.

“One place I was looking at a horse and they wouldn’t let my horse come in because he was western. They only had English horses. And I said it’s just the saddle and the tack you put on him. He doesn’t breathe any differently," Spak said. "So that’s when I decided maybe Malibu wasn’t for me.”

Most of the boarders here don’t live in Rolling Hills Estates. They pay monthly fees to keep their horses here.

Rolling Hills Estates used to make a profit from the Peter Weber Equestrian Center. But over the past decade, it’s lost a chunk of change — around half a million dollars — on repairs.

Community services director Andy Clark said sewer lines break, tractors break down and barn roofs blow off. He said Rolling Hills Estates is a “contract city.” It doesn’t have its own fire department, police department or sanitation department; all that work is done under contract by some other agency. So why not hire someone to run the city stables in Rolling Hills Estates?

“We’re one of the last in California I think run with public employees currently. Why are we losing taxpayer dollars to support a facility that’s mostly non-residents?" Clark said. "As we look at the models of concessionaire-operated, there’s always a constant: we’re always in the plus.”

Some equestrians feel hiring a concessionaire is a cold move. Pamela Gibson of Torrance feeds her horse Allie at the stables twice a day.

“I find it very very sad that so many little government places want to just kind of throw things away or throw them out there rather than get through the hard financial times to wait to see what happens," she said.

What's happened over the years is the few Southern California cities that ran their own stables decided to get out of the business — except Rolling Hills Estates. Look at Lakewood. It hired a concessionaire to run its equestrian center 20 years ago — and Lakewood spokesman Bill Grady says now, the city makes a nice profit each year of about $100,000.

“We still ultimately have some control, but we don’t have the day-to-day and year-to-year sort of financial responsibility for running that unique business of a horse stable," he said.

Some boarders worry that fees will go up. City leaders say that won’t happen. Spak, who plans to keep her horse at the stable, says in the end, it comes down to what’s best for the horses.

“We want ‘em to be cared for. We want ‘em to be safe in their stalls. We want fresh water, fresh food," Spak said. "It’s one thing to be all business. It’s another thing to be humane and business.”

Gil and Doreen Houle, who live and ride in the city, are the new concessionaires for the Peter Weber Equestrian Center. They’ve pledged to be “family-oriented” when they take over next year. That’s what the city council wanted: someone who’d honor the equestrian tradition in Rolling Hills Estates, and make sure that keeping the city stable open isn’t such a hard ride.