By Stuart R. Wahlin
Winnebago County officials say Enrique Jaime Jr. has been operating a commercial rodeo on his ranch at 14852 Hauley Road in Shirland Township. But Jaime, through attorney J.F. Heckinger, instead argues the facility is only meant to simulate a rodeo atmosphere for the purpose of training animals for friends and family.
Both sides were heard Dec. 15 by retired Associate Judge Richard A. Lucas, who was recalled to the bench in November. The hours-long hearing on a motion to dismiss and a petition for injunction resulted in no decision by Lucas, however.
During sworn testimony, Assistant State’s Attorney Sara Hohe first called Winnebago County Planning & Zoning Officer Troy Krup for direct examination.
Krup explained that Jaime’s ranch is zoned for agricultural use, in which rodeos are not allowed without a special-use permit (SUP).
Jaime, however, told The Rock River Times, “I still contend what I’m doing is Ag—horses and cows—and I don’t need a special-use permit, unless…I open it up to the public and charge admission.
“When I went to apply for my special-use permit, it was never a rodeo,” he noted. “I was asking for an equestrian center. For whatever reason, the county said there was no wording for an equestrian center, so they opted to put the rodeo in themselves. I never asked for a rodeo.”
Although a year has passed since his SUP request was denied, Jaime said he has no plans to try again.
“I’m not gonna reapply, ’cause I don’t want it open to the public anymore. I just want to keep it for friends and family, and that’s it,” he explained. “The only reason I applied for my special-use permit was ’cause the county said I had to. I wish I wouldn’t have applied for it, and I should have fought ’em last year.”
The first complaints from area residents were forwarded to the zoning division by the Sheriff’s Department in the summer of 2008, Krup said, noting a letter advising Jaime of the alleged ordinance violation was issued July 18, 2008.
Jaime then visited the zoning office to discuss possible remedies, but Krup indicated a second letter was issued after Jaime allegedly failed to act on the suggestion that he apply for an SUP.
In September 2008, Jaime submitted his permit application “to allow a recreational facility/commercial entertainment/tourist establishment for an outdoor rodeo facility and equestrian riding trails.”
After a staff report was conducted, outlining facts and recommending conditions, Jaime’s petition went before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a public hearing, which lasted two nights.
The ZBA ultimately recommended denial of the requested permit, and the matter was passed on to the County Board’s Zoning Committee, which sustained the ZBA’s findings.
The full County Board voted down the petition Dec. 11, 2008, but Krup noted, “We again started receiving complaints that spring and summer.”
Heckinger takes aim at Krup’s interpretation of the code
During cross-examination of Krup, Heckinger noted the county’s zoning code does not specifically prohibit rodeos, but Krup maintained such a venture would fall under a special use.
During re-direct examination, Hohe and Krup noted that the zoning ordinance related to agricultural use does not list prohibited activities.
According to another portion of county code, special uses include: “Private and public recreational facilities and commercial entertainment and tourist establishments, including, but not limited to, picnic and recreational campgrounds…dining and dancing establishments; archery clubs; gun clubs; Par-3 golf courses; automobile, cycle, snowmobile race tracks or courses; commercial stables and riding trails; and commercial fishing ponds or lakes and/or similar tourist facilities.”
Although rodeos are not specifically cited in the code, Krup emphasized the phrase “including, but not limited to.”
Heckinger argued the code could encompass just about any sort of recreational activity, but Krup agreed that no SUP is required to train animals for personal use, given that no money changes hands.
Heckinger then suggested that Jaime’s friends had simply left their animals in his care. Taking the position one step further, Heckinger wondered, “What happens if he has some friends over?”
Heckinger noted there is no limit specified in the zoning code as to the number of friends or animals that may be present on Jaime’s ranch, and that there is nothing prohibiting construction of the facility for personal use by Jaime, or family and friends.
When Heckinger suggested Jaime’s arena could simply be used for training their animals, Krup noted the alleged rodeos had been advertised and admission was charged, constituting a commercial operation requiring an SUP. He also pointed to outdoor lighting, accessory structures, and the frequency of activity as indicators of a commercial rodeo.
Heckinger noted the code does not specify how infrequent an activity must be to not require an SUP, and Krup acknowledged there is no specific number stated in the ordinance, but described the frequency of events as only one factor hinting at a commercial venture.
Krup also noted the presence of portable toilets on-site, which he said indicated “larger-than-typical crowds” and “more than just a group of friends.”
Additionally, Krup pointed to the large number of animals brought from off-site for events, adding, “He was doing more than training animals on-site.”
Krup argued the arena, complete with bleachers he described as “large in capacity,” was constructed like a commercial rodeo facility. He estimated the grandstands could accommodate 250 spectators.
Heckinger, however, responded by suggesting the facility is only meant to replicate a rodeo arena for training purposes, and Jaime reportedly told Krup the facility is an “equestrian center,” not a rodeo.
Pressed by Heckinger for what staff had determined in its report, Krup acknowledged Jaime’s permit request was recommended for approval with conditions, to which Jaime had agreed to most, if not all, Krup said.
Krup reported having personally visited the property in December 2008, during which time he observed three alleged zoning violations, including the large arena and accessory buildings that had been constructed without zoning clearance or permits.
After establishing the arena is at least one-quarter of a mile from the nearest road or neighboring residence, Heckinger pressed Krup to concur that no SUP is required for social events attended by friends and family.
Furthermore, Heckinger referenced permitted uses in an agricultural district, which include “animal and poultry husbandry,” as well as “pasturage,” to assert that raising horses is allowed.
Arguing agricultural use versus entertainment, Krup responded, however, “A rodeo is typically done for entertainment purposes.” He noted raising animals for food is considered an agricultural use, but rodeos are not.
Heckinger asserted that training horses for off-site rodeos would theoretically be permitted, concluding that county code does not quantify Krup’s interpretations regarding frequency of events and the number of people allowed, for instance.
After the hearing, Jaime argued, “There is nothing on the books that says I can’t do what I do.
“These politicians can have parties and have contributions at their stuff,” he added. “Years ago, at Yale Bridge Road, [Winnebago County Board Chairman] Scott Christiansen [R] had the same events I’ve got. [Former County Board member] Randy Olson [R] still has them now. His horse ranch had one in November.”
Jaime estimated at least a dozen nearby ranches have arenas and similar horse events.
“Why aren’t these other events being stopped?” he wondered. “Why just me?
“It just seems to me that I’m being harassed when all these other ones aren’t being harassed, and they’re doing pretty much the same thing I’ve been doing,” Jaime added. “They’ve been doing it longer than I have.”
In August, Christiansen explained: “The big difference between what we did there and what this other one’s doing is we didn’t charge. There was no entry fee there. That was all just a bunch of people getting together.”
Detective infiltrated event
After a short recess, Hohe called to the witness stand Nicholas Cunningham, a sheriff’s detective.
To establish credibility and knowledge of equestrian events, Cunningham explained he’d grown up on a cattle farm and had participated in rodeos.
He reported that in June 2008, the Sheriff’s Department began receiving complaints of a Mexican rodeo that was “suspicious in nature.”
June 21, 2008, Cunningham and two other plain-clothed officers visited the site for an event, posing as spectators.
He indicated signs had been plastered along area roadways to direct attendees and participants to Jaime’s “Rancho Escondido.”
Upon reaching the property, Cunningham said he observed a person with a metal cash box working the gate, and that he and his fellow undercover officers were charged $10 each before being admitted.
In August 2009, Jaime told The Rock River Times his equestrian events are not open to the public.
“If the guy at the gate don’t know ’em, they don’t come in, or they give me a call to come up and see who it is,” he asserted.
Once inside, Cunningham added, he observed an announcer booth, a mariachi band, a concession stand, arena, bleachers and numerous stock pens typical of rodeos.
The following Monday, Cunningham submitted his report to the county’s zoning division, as well as another to the Health Department, because he’d witnessed food being prepared and sold on-site. The Health Department indicated no permit had been applied for, or issued.
A search warrant was subsequently executed Sept. 30, 2008, during which Cunningham snapped photos used as exhibits in the Dec. 15, 2009, hearing.
When the county board voted to deny Jaime’s request for an SUP a year ago, however, board members agreed little could be done to prevent future events, as long as they are not advertised and no money changes hands. And continue they did.
May 9, 2009, another complaint alleging a rodeo was submitted by county board member Steve Schultz (R-2) after receiving a call from a constituent.
After an event on Jaime’s ranch July 11, Cunningham said, deputies recovered a flier advertising another alleged rodeo from a vehicle involved in an alcohol-related accident. The flier reportedly provided Jaime’s address and two of his phone numbers.
Jaime has indicated that no alcohol is sold during his events, but that visitors are welcome to bring their own.
Jaime further asserted the July 11 event was only his birthday party, however. Cunningham testified that he witnessed no money changing hands, but that he observed a taco stand, outdoor lighting, portable toilets, bleachers and animal events in the keyhole arena.
“They’re telling me I can’t have a birthday party on my property, which I think is going overboard,” Jaime told The Rock River Times.
Pressed by Heckinger during cross-examination, Cunningham conceded that there was no evidence to prove the event was anything more than a private party, but interjected, “It looked like a rodeo to me.”
July 23, 2009, Jaime met with Cunningham and Deputy Chief Dominic Iasparro to discuss plans for an event scheduled for Aug. 1. During the meeting, Cunningham reported, Jaime argued it would technically not be a rodeo, because there would only be one equestrian event per day.
Calf-roping, cow-tailing, speed events, team penning and cattle cutting are typical rodeo competitions.
When Jaime was asked about charging admission, Cunningham reported that Jaime referred to it as a “donation” to offset the costs of livestock and a $300-per-hour mariachi band. Also during the meeting, Jaime reportedly acknowledged that he allows people to sell food during the events.
Additionally, Cunningham said Jaime claimed to know all of the participants, but that he conceded he doesn’t know all of the spectators.
During cross-examination of Cunningham, Heckinger suggested the flier was given privately, and that the event was not advertised.
“It’s not a flier that I pass out or hang out anywhere,” Jaime said in August. “It’s just for the people who come in.”
The flier, however, was enough for the county to secure an injunction, thereby causing cancellation of the planned Aug. 1 event.
Permanent, or temporary?
Heckinger argued the facility is not a “permanent structure,” despite Cunningham’s assertion that bleachers and other components are “about as permanent as they can be.”
Even the large concrete blocks that make up the walls of the arena can be moved with equipment, Heckinger noted.
“You’re not gonna have to destroy it to remove it,” he said. “It comes apart in pieces.”
Cunningham acknowledged that, like the word “rodeo,” the term “permanent” is subject to interpretation.
By the end of the afternoon Dec. 15, both sides had rested without Jaime being called to testify.
The case will resume Jan. 13, at which time Jaime said he expects a decision.
“What I want to do is have private parties for friends and family—no different than if anybody else has a party,” he asserted. “If the judge says I can’t take donations, I won’t do donations.
“If it comes down to that, I don’t mind. But I still think if you want to chase cows, if my friends and family want to get together, I’d say: ‘Hey, you know what? Let’s get the cows,’” he added.
“I’ll get together 30, 40 people and say, ‘Let’s go rent 20-head of cow, 30-head of cow, and bring ‘em out here and rope them and practice with ‘em,’” Jaime said. “I don’t see that we’re doing anything wrong. No one’s being bothered.”
Jaime said if the court rules he cannot throw parties or accept donations, the same should apply to everyone else in the county.
From the Dec. 23-29, 2009 issue