Who owns Rohr Park's horse arena? Equestrians speak up in defense of preserving a public amenity
By Tammy Murga,2023-06-04
Janeen Reed has been riding her horse from her home in Bonita to the nearby Rohr Park's outdoor arena for 20 years. So when she heard last month that a private saddle club had cut off access to the public arena, she and several other riders went to the park's owners: the city of Chula Vista.
It appears their voices were heard.
City officials acknowledged the arena had been wrongly locked for a week in May, and said it will remain accessible to the public.
According to several riders, the Sunnyside Saddle Club locked the gated ring on May 8. The lock was removed May 15 after the city’s Parks and Recreation Department learned about the closure.
Sunnyside did not return multiple requests for comment.
The Bonita Valley Horsemen had four city-approved permits for events between March and November. A week before their scheduled May 20 event, Sunnyside told the club it could not host its event because Sunnyside owned the arena and could refuse access, Reed said.
“I didn’t understand," she said. "We had a valid permit.”
In a May 11 Facebook post, Sunnyside announced the ring's closure.
“Due to current events, there will be no public access to the main arena until further notice,” it said. “We are actively working with the city of Chula Vista to ensure everything is in place to support reopening as quickly as possible.”
Sunnyside later updated its statement and said the May 20 event would go on.
Deputy City Manager Eric Crockett said Sunnyside has had a longstanding relationship with the city as the club used the arena even before Rohr Park was annexed by Chula Vista from San Diego County about 40 years ago.
Sunnyside maintains it is entitled to priority use because it helped build and maintain the arena when the county owned the park.
What it boils down to, Crockett said, is that “the city owns the land and all improvements as they were given to the city.”
“The saddle club has been handling the maintenance of the facility and operates it 10 times out of the year,” he said. “They do get volunteers to fix and maintain the facility, but they don’t have exclusive use.”
Reed and other riders, including Carri Fernandez and Mark Kukuchek, said others beside Sunnyside have invested their time and money to maintain and upgrade the arena.
Riders acknowledge Sunnyside's long history with the arena and in receiving first dibs on dates for their shows, but they feel the ring must remain open to the public as it has for decades.
“You can’t take an acre arena out of the equation. It’s not like we have unlimited resources to ride in the valley,” said Fernandez. “We keep getting chipped away; it’s like a melting iceberg. We need to preserve our open space not only for our horse community, but for our children to ride bikes, go for a walk.”
San Diego County has several trails and horse arenas, but public options are scarce. The county is expected to open a 13-acre equestrian park in Lakeside, another horse-friendly community. Dubbed the Dianne Jacob Equestrian Park, it would be located about 20 miles northeast of Rohr Park.
The Bonita arena has welcomed many riders from around the county for safe training and community events and even served as an evacuation center during a 2003 fire, said Kukuchek.
“It’s really a community arena, a community amenity,” he said.
Crockett said Sunnyside is updating its insurance so that it is liable only when the club is using the ring. That way, when “it is open to the public or being used by other groups, Sunnyside is not liable,” he said. Anyone granted permits for events can use the arena and when the facility is not programmed for events, it is open for public use.
Crockett added that Public Works will update signage at the arena “to let people know it is open to the public, what activities are allowed and if there’s an issue, the number with which to call.”
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .