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Planning Commission gives green light for alpacas

ESCONDIDO — The Planning Commission generally considers amendments to zoning use permits for businesses, apartment complexes, public parks and trails. But at its Sept. 24 meeting, alpacas took center stage.

At that meeting, the Planning Commission voted 6-0 to authorize a Conditional Use Permit to permit a home-owning couple to have two domesticated alpacas live on their property. The commission also voted, more broadly, to update the city’s zoning ordinances for all domesticated animals.

The vote came in the aftermath of a high-profile story about a couple facing a financial penalty for owning the animals in violation of city code. Alpacas are native to Peru and live throughout South America. They are closely related to llamas, though are smaller in stature.

Escondido, under its previous zoning authority, classified the alpacas as cows.

But the owners of the alpacas — Kelly Thor and Ryan Jimenez — appealed to the city of Escondido, requesting a reclassification as small horses, after being slapped with a city code violation. They also launched a petition in support of the cause and a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money needed to pay for submitting mandatory permit application documents.

In the aftermath of that incident Thor said that she met with Assistant Planning Director Mike Strong to work out a solution amicable to both sides.

“I tried to figure out how do we remedy the code violation and it came down to, ‘Well, you have to propose an amendment change,’” said Thor, who said she got the alpacas from an owner in Ramona. “And I was like, ‘OK, I don’t know how to do that!’ And Mike helped me through the steps in Escondido.”

Thor also credited Strong with his work on facilitating the pact.

“I’ve actually really enjoyed the process and it’s been pretty easy to follow,” Thor said. “Mike, who we worked with in the Planning Commission, was super helpful. He guided me through it, he asked me questions when he needed to and he was responsive when I had questions for him.”

Several neighbors also spoke in support of Thor and Jimenez, citing the alpacas as a neighborhood asset. One of them, Matheno Landress, testified that he lived across the street from the couple and said the alpacas have morphed into a neighborhood attraction.

“Each time I see children walking down the street, I see smiles on their faces,” he said. “Each time I see a car driving through the neighborhood, slowing down to see the alpacas, people in the car have smiles on their faces.”

He also joked that the alpacas have the “ability to slow cars down,” describing the area located close to Highway 15 as “a bit of a thoroughfare.” Some people have halted to look at the alpacas, he added, with Landress crediting them as a “speeding deterrent.”

One neighbor, Bryan Clay, registered his opposition to the proposal. He said the alpacas often scream so loud that it “sounds like somebody’s being killed,” adding that “they may be cute and nice, but they are a disruption.”

“This is in a neighborhood that is bordered by people just like me who want to have peace and quiet,” said Clay. “If I tried to sell my property now, I’m going to have to disclose to potential buyers that this is a nuisance that could lower my property value.”

Two Planning Commission members, James McNair and Mark Watson, said they entered the meeting with an open mind on the measure and that their votes hinged on whoever made the best argument in front of the commission. Because so many proponents showed up, and only one person spoke in opposition, they said that served as reason enough to vote “yes” on the zoning amendment.

Commissioner Stan Weiler added that residents often attend meetings in opposition to plans brought before the Planning Commission, pointing to the night’s proceedings as a nice change of pace.

“Property rights are a thing and it’s a tough thing for the city to govern over time and things change,” said Weiler. “Alpacas may not have been the pets that they are today, therefore it wasn’t in the code. So, these things get added to the code and restrictions are placed.”

After the meeting, Jimenez and Thor explained that it took robust lobbying of neighbors and explaining the process to them to get them to attend and speak in support of the cause.

“I was surprised by the outpouring of our neighbors coming out in support of us, so that made us feel really good in that it’s not just us feeling that the alpacas bring joy to the neighborhood,” said Thor. “They actually put that into words.”