Nov. 20, 2012
Hannah Guzik, OVN correspondent
The California Coastal Horse Rescue organization is being sued by a neighbor who claims the nonprofit has neglected its Meiners Oaks property, causing manure smells and dust clouds “laden with E. coli” to drift next door.
Camille Sears, an atmospheric scientist and tangerine grower, is seeking emotional damages as well as compensation for the economic harm she says the dust has caused, according to the lawsuit filed Aug. 30 in the Ventura County Superior Court.
“Our tangerine trees are just coated with dust from CCHR,” Sears said Monday. “It’s easy to see where it’s coming from — we have videos and lots of photos where you can see it just billow onto our property.”
The horse rescue has called the lawsuit unfair, and an attempt to force it to close.
“Our property is legally zoned for the number of horses that we have, and we’ve always been in compliance with all zoning ordinances and agency mandates,” said Ingrid Kingaard, a founder of the rescue and CCHR board member. “We are mindful of our neighbors, and the fact that she is the only neighbor complaining is noteworthy.”
If the nonprofit group can’t raise enough money to fight the lawsuit, it might have to shut down, which would mean the end for some of the horses, she said.
“In the event we fail and we are forced to close, those horses have nowhere else to go,” Kingaard said. “At least eight of them are not adoptable because of age or special needs and will have to be euthanized.”
Cindy Murphree, director of the rescue who is also cited in the complaint, declined to comment for this story, citing legal reasons.
Sears’ attorney, Darin Marx, said he couldn’t disclose the amount of money his client would request as damages, but said, “It won’t be insubstantial.”
Sears said she tried to avoid a lawsuit and that it comes only after years of trying to get the rescue to eliminate the dust, which may impact her ability to sell her $100,000 tangerine crop this year.
“Our tangerines are very delicate and it’s not something you can wash off afterwards,” she said. “You have to make sure the fruit is clean when you pick it.”
Sears said she grows high-end tangerines, such as seedless-gold-nugget and pixie varieties, on her 8-acre property in the 500 block of West Lomita Avenue. She sells the fruit to Sunkist, Ojai’s Tangerine Man and the Ojai Pixie Growers Association, she said.
Her property, which she purchased in 1996, runs adjacent to the 9-acre rescue parcel.
Kingaard said the rescue is home to 19 standard horses and two miniatures. The rescue was founded in 2000 to care for abused, abandoned and neglected horses and moved to its current location in 2008.
According to Kingaard, the rescue has placed more than 300 horses in homes, saved hundreds of others from slaughter and helped locals continue to feed their horses during tough economic times.
“The lives of these horses are at stake,” she said in a Nov. 1 letter to supporters. “We must not abandon them. We must fight for their right to live in peace.”
Kingaard said the rescue does try to mitigate dust by watering down highly trafficked areas on the property.
Sears said the alleged problem with the dust and odors started soon after the rescue moved in. She decided to test the dust for E. coli after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease last year, when she learned that the disease may be linked to the bacteria, she said.
“I just want to emphasize how frustrating this has been for me,” she said. “I do not want to sue the horse rescue — it was the last thing that I wanted to do, but I felt trapped.”
She is also seeking recovery of attorney’s fees, punitive damages and permanent injunctions that would prohibit the rescue from “depositing any E. coli or other harmful materials” on her property and force the nonprofit to stop any “noxious odors” or dust from drifting onto her parcel.
“I’ve always felt that they placed the horses’ well-being above mine,” Sears said. “Instead of taking care of the problem, they kept expanding and getting more horses and taking out more orchards, causing more dust.”
Marx said he expects the case to go to trial sometime next year.
In the meantime, the rescue is scrambling to raise funds to prepare a legal defense.
“We are trying to do the right thing, not for our own benefit, but for the horses, to whom we have an obligation,” Kingaard said. “For some of them, who have been abused, this is the only place they’ve ever felt safe.”
Nov. 20, 2012