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Little horses, big tiff


ROCK HALL -- It's always something in this self-styled "Pearl of the Chesapeake."

Civic squabbling seems constant in this hamlet hung from Kent County's western tip that is home to 1,574 people and six miniature horses that have spawned the latest controversy.

"I'd never have gotten these horses if I thought there was a problem," says Aldo Sodano, who says he was told three years ago when he got his first horse that he had satisfied all the zoning regulations. Now, he says, he and the horses are the victims of a political vendetta.

Not so, say some neighbors.

To them, the six horses, all under 34 inches tall, are an illegal nuisance slipped in under zoning regulations so vague and outdated that local officials say they're like the Bible -- any interpretation is possible.

Mr. Sodano, his wife, Betsy, and their supporters say this is the latest misstep by a maladroit municipal government that tried last year to fine boat owners for the noise their sheets and halyards made against masts (the proposal failed in a council vote).

That proposal was followed by a hotly debated boat slip tax passed this year (it has not been levied). And May brought an acrimonious local election that put three new commissioners and a new mayor in office. The new administration then demoted the police chief, angering many residents.

"Our politics are a matter of record from here to California," Town Administrator Michael Downes acknowledges ruefully.

Now, say the Sodanos, the town is after them and the six little horses (well, almost seven -- one is pregnant) stabled behind their house.

"They will be taking our business and ripping it in half," Mr. Sodano says. "Horses are part of our business."

The Sodanos moved to Rock Hall in 1985 after discovering the area during a sailing trip. They built their house in a wetlands area inside town limits on Route 20, on a 1.4-acre lot zoned for commercial use, then started an equine-themed gift shop called Horsing Around in the lower half of the house.

The horses have been there since 1992, when Mr. Sodano gave Jingles to Mrs. Sodano for Christmas.

Jingles was followed by four others -- stallion Shady Grady and mares Sure Talk, Lady Fincher and Jamboree. Nature took its course and Holiday, a female, arrived on Memorial Day. And Jamboree is expecting.

"Quite honestly, I don't think the horses belong there," says Russell Burton, who lives nearby. "There are some days that it really does smell."

David Jones, whose property adjoins the Sodanos' land, also objects to the horses, although he says he has done nothing to pursue the matter since he was elected to the Town Council in May.

"When you have a high tide, all that stuff comes back on my property -- the horse manure," says Mr. Jones. "It's a strong odor in the summertime. I feel like I have the same right as everybody else to sit in my yard and not smell that."

But other neighbors -- the owners of a restaurant called Swamp Point Inn, which also backs up to Mr. Sodano's property -- say that the horses are so well-cared-for and the inevitable byproducts so promptly removed that their customers sit on the deck and eat without complaint. In fact, they say, the horses are a local asset, drawing tourists and visitors.

"This place with the horses, it's unique, it's different," says Sandra Ealy, who runs Swamp Point Inn. "Even St. Michaels doesn't have miniature horses."

One might wonder how one horse became six (almost seven) without some kind of official notice-taking.

One factor certainly is lack of municipal continuity: Rock Hall has had four zoning administrators in five years.

Current administrator Dennis Riggin, in fact, is only filling in until someone permanent can be found.

"In his defense, he's been through probably three adminis

trators," Mr. Downes says of Mr. Sodano, and each administrator can have a different interpretation of the code.

Mr. Sodano, who has satisfied state wetland rules, applied for what he thought were all the necessary town permits, arranged manure disposal (it goes into the trash, which is picked up by the town, he says) and set up flycatchers, only to encounter another zoning obstacle, is less sanguine.

"I don't get it, and that's what's scaring me," he says. "The zoning inspector has given me four different things I might be in violation of."

Not so, says Mr. Riggin.

Mr. Sodano has been notified to expect a visit from town officials

today, when they will inspect his property before making a ruling on Jingles and the others.

Town ordinances, dating from the turn of the century, specify only that animals not be allowed to run loose. So officials have asked a lawyer for help in divining the precise meaning of the zoning regulations.

Mr. Riggin and Mr. Downes acknowledge that revision of town codes would help avoid such conflict in the future.

"This is not political," Mr. Riggin says. "Mr. Sodano is scared to death we're going to yank his horses away from him and we're not. I think the problem is a lack of communication."

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