Rural Spring neighbors object to horse sanctuary

By Claudia FeldmanJuly 18, 2015

Donna Stedman did not mean to create a Texas-sized neighborhood feud when she knocked on Bernie Eskins’ door two years ago. She just wanted to know if she could board her rescue horses, Henry and Lexi, on his expansive property.

Eskins said no, but as they continued to talk over the next month, he changed his mind. He and his wife, Melissa Eskins, owned almost four acres in the lush, semi-rural subdivision of Spring Hills, just south of The Woodlands. And they encouraged Stedman as she settled her horses on their land, adopted five more, started a small horseback riding business and, in January, launched Henry’s Home. The sanctuary for horses and humans, particularly veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for Stedman was a dream come true.

If all seemed hunky-dory, some neighbors weren’t so sure – about the extra traffic, the line of cars parked on the county road, or even the horse droppings. They studied their deed restrictions. They hired a lawyer. They even called a neighborhood meeting to discuss the perceived problems.

In June, trouble in the form of a certified letter landed in the Eskinses’ mailbox. Seven of their neighbors were threatening to sue. The back and forth shows that people who live side by side in a relatively small area can disagree sharply about what is appropriate for their community, even when a good cause is involved, and they will go to great lengths to make sure their vision prevails. The nasty squabble has divided the eclectic subdivision – home to chickens, goats, other horses, mobile homes, two cat sanctuaries and for-profit businesses.

Stedman was not mentioned by name in the two-page, cease-and-desist letter. However, references to her were unmistakable when Conroe attorney Bryan Fowler listed the ways the Eskinses allegedly violated Spring Hill’s deed restrictions:

All lots in the subdivision are residential lots.

Trades or activities that are annoyances or nuisances are prohibited.

No animals, livestock or poultry can be raised, bred or kept on any lot except for the owner’s or tenant’s own use.

Neighbors have the right to “institute and prosecute appropriate proceedings” if they believe other neighbors have violated the rules.

Fowler’s letter, dated June 16, gave the Eskinses 10 days to get rid of the “horse-related business” on their property. If his clients sued and won, the lawyer warned, the Eskinses could be responsible for attorneys’ fees, court costs and civil damages.

Ranch owner refuses comment

The neighbors wanting to send Stedman packing have not responded to numerous calls from the Chronicle. Likewise, Bernie Eskins is choosing not to respond to them. He told the newspaper, though, that the neighborhood tempest is not just ridiculous but a little bit crazy.

“At least two of the names on that letter are affiliated with another horse facility just down the street that is solely for profit, and they don’t like the fact that Donna has something going of a good nature,” he said. “She has a passion for horses, she’s trying to help veterans, and she’s far from making a living at this. I find (the suggestion that she’s making any money) humorous.”

Both Eskins and Stedman once boarded horses at that nearby facility, Loveland Ranch. They say they tried to leave on good terms with the owners, Toni and Jim Coates, but found it difficult.

Toni Coates spoke to a Chronicle reporter only long enough to refuse to comment on any aspect of this story except to say she has no role in it.

What particularly chaps Eskins, 52 and a manager-in-training for Clayton Homes, is that he sees violations of the community’s deed restrictions everywhere he looks in his subdivision. “We have an RV park, a halfway house for children, an auto parts company and a photography business. Mobile homes aren’t supposed to be allowed, but we have them, and two residences on the same property aren’t allowed, but we have that, too. I’d say let him that is without sin cast the first stone.”

A spokesman for Montgomery County Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack, who represents the community, said disputes over deed restrictions are handled in civil court. That is, aggrieved parties have to sue.

A purpose in her life

Both Eskins and Stedman, 56, suspect that their soured relationships with the Coateses and Loveland Ranch are somehow at the bottom of the brouhaha. Neighbors who sent the letter did not respond to calls from the Chronicle. The president of the property owners’ association, Dwayne Skweres, also declined to comment.

Eskins said he will continue to defend Stedman and protect himself if the neighbors sue. But he said he isn’t spoiling for a fight, nor is Stedman.

She grew up on a farm in Indiana, had her first pony at age 5, and until she went away to college at 20, surrounded herself with horses. As she fed and cared for them, they sustained her as well.

Over the next 15 years, Stedman busied herself with non-horse projects. She became a respiratory therapist, earned a business degree from Purdue University, married and had two children.

She was in her mid-30s and well aware how privileged she was when she began to search for more purpose in her life. One day she imagined a sanctuary, a big chunk of land in the country, “a place where people could heal their souls.”

Stedman and her husband had another child. She became a master gardener. She learned to cook in very large quantities. And in the process of helping a sister with bipolar disorder in 2012, she adopted Henry and Lexi from the Houston SPCA.

Henry, the sanctuary’s namesake, was so starved early in his life that he couldn’t support himself and had to recover in a giant sling. He is still underweight, even though he grazes constantly.

“He’s patient and loving but an attention hog,” she said fondly.

Today Stedman has seven horses, all rescues or donations; roughly 100 volunteers, all of whom contribute time and money to Henry’s Place; and about 20 veterans, plus their families, who are invited to ride for free. Usually they head down the street to the Spring Creek Greenway, where the trails seem far removed from city or suburban life. Round trips last about three hours.

“A lot of conversations happen on the trail,” said volunteer Pam Grabsky. “People just open up.”

Peace, tranquility for veterans

Army veteran Mike Brown, who suffers from PTSD, said he finds peace at Henry’s Home. “I help take care of the horses,” he said, “and these beautiful animals give a lot back. I feel a lot better after riding a horse for a few hours than taking a handful of pills.”

Chris Fahey, who is still serving in the Navy as a petty officer first class, said he also finds peace and tranquility at the sanctuary.

“The Navy taught me how to fire a weapon, tourniquet a wound and save or take a life,” Fahey said. “But Henry’s Home is teaching me how to console my daughter when she is upset, how to set boundaries with an animal so we can respect each other mutually, and how to live in a moment. Without a doubt, I attribute part of my ability to live a happy life to Henry’s Home.”

Donna Parr, who has not visited the sanctuary to Stedman’s knowledge, offers a very different view. While Parr did not respond to a call from the Chronicle, she in May typed a single-spaced letter, a full page in length, in response to a complimentary story written about Stedman in a suburban newspaper.

Parr sent the letter of complaint to at least 13 different groups and agencies, including the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, the Federal Trade Commission and the IRS.

Parr alleged that Stedman forces the rescue horses to work when they should be resting, further abuses already abused animals, runs a for-profit horse-riding business in the guise of a sanctuary, operates in a deed-restricted neighborhood, and puts horses and riders at risk when they travel a busy, trafficked street on the way to the trails.

The street clearly is not heavily trafficked, Stedman said, and she doesn’t believe she overworks or abuses the rehabilitated horses when they go on slow, meandering trail rides. She also offered documents showing the IRS has granted the sanctuary non-profit status and that it operates on a tight, not flush, budget.

According to Stedman’s records, Henry’s Home has about $8,500 in cash, and she spends about $500 per horse per month, not counting medical, dental or farrier bills. Also, she charges trail riders, the non-veterans, $60 on weekdays and $75 on weekends. (By comparison, Loveland Ranch charges riders $40 per horse per hour.)

But Parr and the neighbors threatening to sue are right about one thing, Stedman said philosophically. She and her herd need a new home.

Original Houston Chronicle Post