City Fights To Preserve Equine Identity

Tucked in a region of galloping suburban growth is a town where the sidewalks are horse trails and there's a ride-through McDonald's.

Locals hunker down at the Saddle Sore Saloon. New commercial development must be western themed. The application is in to trademark the name locals already consider official: Horsetown USA.

Yet despite its trappings and swagger, Norco is struggling to make sure its new slogan, ''city living in a rural atmosphere,'' doesn't become a hollow promise. A new strategic plan discusses how to guard--and capitalize--on the city's equine identity.

The town is under tremendous pressure to develop along with the one of the nation's fastest growing areas, the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles. Mansions have been sprouting on nearby hills, and the average new home price hovers around $850,000, according to city calculations.

A denser population forces the issue of what to do with all that manure.

Residents have seen new homes and office parks supplant ranches and miles of trails winding through fields and orchards elsewhere in Southern California.

''People who didn't own horses moved in, and bit by bit there was pressure, and horse owners were pushed out,'' said Debbie Smith, who manages an online community of horse owners and their businesses. ''There are people who want to live in the country but they don't want the reality of the country--they want to look at horses grazing on the hillside but don't want to smell them.''

And the people keep coming. Census numbers show that Riverside County was the nation's second-fastest growing county in 2005. More than 1.9 million residents live there now, and 2.7 million are projected by 2020. In 1980, the county claimed only 663,000 residents.

''Norco is completely surrounded by a lot of development,'' said City Manager Jeff Allred, ''and that's what's fueling the desire to trademark the city and to ensure that people know that this is a different place.''

Norco, less than 50 miles east of L.A.'s skyscrapers, is certainly that.

People: 27,000. Horses: as many as 20,000.

Restaurants have watering troughs and hitching posts. Drivers face $135 tickets for blocking the city's 120 miles of trails. A few feet above a pedestrian crosswalk button is another for those on horseback.

Even those who don't own horses are expected to support the lifestyle. City Council members recently discussed including a horse manure rake as part of the welcome wagon to new residents.

Berwin Hanna helped create the Norco Horseman's Association, the city's most powerful lobbying group. Here, a rumor that a local candidate isn't into horses can be enough to kill a campaign.

Hanna recalled one instance: ''His platform was sidewalks and street signs,'' Hanna said in a deep Texas drawl. ''He didn't get elected.''

These days, animal-related matters need a supermajority vote in council chambers, where cowboy hats and boots are the norm. Local planners are including horse arenas in new neighborhood parks, and now every home development must reserve some land for animal keeping -- even if the residents don't have horses.

One potential threat is a byproduct of the lifestyle--manure. A 1,000-pound horse produces 50 pounds of manure a day. Meeting stringent state water quality regulations can be tough.

''We don't want to impact any waterways or anybody else's property,'' said Bill Thompson, Norco's public works director. ''I just want to start addressing the issue right now so it doesn't become a problem 10 years from now.''

The city has tossed around various ideas on how to deal with the waste, including converting the stuff into electricity to help run the city. Residents currently stick much of it in big black recycling bins but are planning a workshop in January to discuss the issue.

''People can call us cowboys and hicks, and we don't care,'' said former Mayor Kathy Azevedo. ''We don't want to lose it. We don't want to become Orange County.''

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The Associated Press

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