The Horse at Poo Corner

A horse is a horse, of course, but it's what comes out of the horse that's bugging Ted Robinson. The Wheat Ridge resident lives next door to Kim and Curt Fear and their 22-year-old mare. And though the horse's name is Song, these days Robinson is the one singing the blues.

"How would you feel if the smell of horse manure mixed in with the smell of your barbecue cooking?" he asks, his voice rising in pitch as he re-creates the olfactory ambience of a recent meal. "How would you feel if you looked out the window and there's the horse with his ass aimed right at your face and sh-- coming out of his ass and then he pisses two gallons?"

Viewed from that angle, perhaps it's no wonder that Robinson and his neighbors Jo Anne Howard and Floyd and Vera Dunsmoor have spent the past eight months waging a long--and so far unsuccessful--campaign to get rid of the stinky steed. Their claim: that while the horse's presence in the neighborhood may be legal under Wheat Ridge zoning, Song's manure has hit too many sour notes and thus violated the city's nine-year-old odor ordinance.

Earlier this month the issue of Song's excrement was even aired out in a Wheat Ridge municipal courtroom, and hardly anyone breathed easier when the judge dismissed the case. "I'm bitter," complains Kim Fear, who says she shelled out $2,000 in attorney's fees to fend off the legal charge. Robinson and the other neighbors called the trial a farce because they lost. At least one city official, meanwhile, says it was a farce that there was a trial at all.

"Code-enforcement officials were there, and animal-control officials," says Nick Fisher, the city's animal-enforcement supervisor. "The chief of police even testified that he couldn't smell anything. I don't think it should have even got to court. But the neighbors were so adamant. We figured, 'Let's get them into court. That way we can appease them.'"

Kim and Curt Fear moved into their home on West 32nd Avenue in September 1996, and Song moved in a month later. Kim Fear was particularly excited that the property was zoned for horses; she's owned Song most of the mare's life but had never before been able to keep the animal on her own land.

Fear says she had no contact with the complaining neighbors--not so much as a hello--until early this year, when she had a conversation with Floyd Dunsmoor. Fear says the 81-year-old Dunsmoor told her that the neighbors didn't like the horse being there and planned to take their case to the city.

"Animals were here before, and he complained and got rid of them," Fear says. "That was the first [sign] we were going to have problems."

Dunsmoor makes no apologies for the legal horse race that followed. "That damn horse smells like hell most of the time," asserts Dunsmoor, who claims the animal lives just twenty feet from his patio. "We're all disappointed. This is no place for a horse."

Despite the fact that horses are allowed under the law, Dunsmoor and the other neighbors say they have a right to raise a stink. The code permitting horses was written in the days when Wheat Ridge was mainly a rural farming community. Although the Fears have a large lot, they're surrounded by several homes. "The city has grown up around this code, and nobody's bothered to correct this," Robinson says.

The neighbors did catch the Fears in two violations of city ordinances earlier this year. In a letter from the city in March, the couple was informed that they had built their pen too close to their neighbors' property and that they had allowed too much manure to accumulate. So the Fears moved the pen back to its required distance, fifteen feet from the property line. And Kim Fear began shoveling manure several times a week.

After that, she says, "everything seemed okay," and she assumed that was the end of it. But then she found out that her neighbors were taking their complaints to the city council. When that failed to achieve anything, they began bombarding the city with letters and phone calls until code-enforcement workers--and later animal-control workers--started coming out to investigate.

"Both code enforcement and animal enforcement sniffed the air to see if they could smell anything," says police chief Jack Hurst. "Some could smell a horse smell but didn't think it was a problem."

To Robinson, that's hardly a shock. "The animal-control guys were totally on the side of the horse and the Fears," he claims. "These are farm boys. They probably spent their whole lives smelling horse manure, horse piss and getting bit by flies. They've probably got a bucket of horseshit sitting by their bed."

Closing his windows at the first whiff of trouble, Robinson says, wasn't an option. "What are you talking about?" he demands. "It's hot in July. We didn't have air conditioning." Jo Anne Howard adds that animal-control officers never came out in the evening hours, when the pony perfume typically reached its fragrant peak.

City officials had already advised the neighbors that the only way to formally prove an odor violation was for the complaining residents to agree on a specific day and time when they had all smelled the offending stench. So Robinson took the initiative.

"Dunsmoor and Howard were absolutely no help," he complains. "We all had to come up with a day it bothered us. So I said it was a nuisance to me on July the 14th. I said to [Vera] Dunsmoor, 'Did it bother you today?' She said yes."

But Jo Anne Howard wasn't home that day, and she couldn't be persuaded to swear out a complaint. Robinson wasn't pleased. "I said, 'Look, do you want to get the horse the hell out of here or what?'"

Robinson then called Hurst out to investigate. At the time, Hurst was acting as interim city planning director, a job that includes overseeing code enforcement. "Robinson got ahold of me one day in July," Hurst recalls. "He said it was particularly bad that day. I didn't smell anything until I got right up to the fence." Even then, Hurst says, he didn't exactly find the scent overpowering.

Still, in the belief that getting the dispute into court would be the best way to resolve it, he cited the Fears for violating the odor ordinance, a law he admits is "impossible to enforce, really."

Assistant City Attorney Tammy Greene, who prosecuted the case, agrees that "it's hard to measure a smell." But even though city officials couldn't confirm the presence of any offensive odors, Greene says the neighbors' spirited complaints created enough probable cause to proceed. "They called and called," says Greene. "'Why aren't you doing anything?' So we thought we'd show them what we can do and what our limitations are."

The city's limitations became apparent soon enough. When push came to shove, Vera Dunsmoor apparently couldn't be sure she had smelled something specifically on July 14, so she wasn't asked to testify by the prosecution. And since no city official had found anything wrong, that left Robinson.

Howard is still steaming that she was left out just because she hadn't been home on the 14th. "The preparation the city attorney had was a fourth of a sheet of paper!" she complains. "I was not even put on the stand. I don't think she knew how to do her job."

But Greene says the city did the best it could with the evidence it had. "We can't create the evidence," she notes. "If I have code-enforcement officers who say they didn't smell anything, I can't tell them to pretend they did."

Kim Fear says she can appreciate her neighbors' concerns, but she is upset at how they went about handling the dispute. "The part that really bothers me the most is nobody ever came and talked to me except Mr. Dunsmoor," Fear says. "We're not gonna move, we're not gonna get rid of the horse. And they need to understand that."

The neighbors and the Fears aren't speaking to each other these days. Howard says she's considering filing a civil suit. "It's an option that's open to me," she says. "I haven't decided that."

Robinson, a renter, says he's planning on leaving his house and heading upwind within the month. During one recent conversation, he becomes so frustrated with reliving the fracas that he suddenly cuts short the telephone call.

Reached again soon afterward, the still-fuming Robinson hangs up again--but not before offering a final word on the dispute: