City Flushes Out Manure Business

Sierra Soil and Sod has been converting horse droppings to compost for three decades, but the city has given it until March 31 to pack up and go.

It may look like a pile of horse poo – because that’s what it is – but it’s also a business 30 years in the making. And now it has to find a new home.

For decades, Sierra Soil and Sod has converted the, um, output of horses stabled at the into composting gold.

“We call it the ‘stuff of life,’ ” said Joanne West, president and general manager of Sierra Soil. She primarily services the horses on site and a few smaller stables which truck in their own horses’ contributions to the cause.

But when the city bought the riding park in January 2010 as part of a much larger acquisition of 132 acres from landowner and developer , it used bond money approved in a 2008 election. Called Measure Y, the bond specifically requires open-space purchases to house recreational uses only.

The horses’ activity fits. Their manure doesn’t.

Short Notice

West got the bad news just before Thanksgiving. She knew her longtime partner and sublessor Blenheim Facility Management, which operates the riding park, would be able to stay on the site through the end of 2012. She thought she would be too.

But when the City Council formally extended Blenheim’s lease at , the agreement called for Sierra Soil and Sod to vacate by Feb. 13.

After Sierra asked for more time, the council extended the deadline to March 31. But West said that doesn’t give her enough time to unload her product.

“Our big selling season starts in March when the weather changes and everyone wants to garden,” she said. To be out on March 31 is “not long enough.”

Open to Lawsuits

But City Attorney Omar Sandoval said Sierra’s continued presence opens the city to a possible lawsuit from bondholders.

“Bond counsel says Sierra Soil does not meet the limitations of that measure,” he told the City Council. “I am nervous that we have an opinion from bond counsel that that particular use is not [allowed].”

West is doubtful someone would actually sue the city. “We would be in the process of moving. Who would sue us if we’re in the process of moving? It’s workable.”

Resident Clint Worthington, a regular critic of San Juan Capistrano politics, opposes extending the deadline. Although he agreed the chances of a lawsuit are “pretty much zero,” he said, “Why take the risk?”

Inland Empire-bound

Elsewhere in San Juan Capistrano, trash-hauler takes care of horse manure, trucking it to a facility in Fontana as part of the city’s mandated recycling efforts, West said. (A representative from CR&R did not return Patch’s phone calls.)

Sierra’s compost is used locally. Not only do landscapers and builders throughout South Orange County purchase her product, she donates some of it to nonprofits in San Juan, such as the gardening angels of , and other historical sites and schools, West said.

Finding a suitable new location will take time, West said.

She estimates it will cost $50,000 to $60,000 to move the business. “Who’s going to give me a small-business loan if I don’t even have a location?”


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