In a contentious meeting in which Mayor Ryan Toussaint broke his gavel, nearly three dozen community members including "Santa Claus" voiced support for a local business, Council Member Karen Waite quietly shed a tear, and Council Member Chris Djernaes walked out after his own emotional outburst, the Solvang City Council Monday approved the renewal and extension of Solvang Trolley & Carriage Co.’s business license for five years.
The decision brought to an end the annual renewal process for the long-time, local, horse-drawn-carriage company’s owners.
“I think it’s ridiculous to have this show every year for a business. How can you invest in your business, how can you make strong decisions to move forward if you could be gone in just a few months,” Toussaint said before the final 3-1 vote with Djernaes dissenting and Council Member Daniel Johnson absent.
Under the agreement, vehicles and costumes used must conform in appearance to the city’s Danish theme, animals must be maintained in a manner that is safe for animals and passengers alike, and streets must be kept “reasonably free from animal excrement and urine.”
Routes and hours of operation “will not substantially or unreasonably adversely deteriorate the quality of traffic or the congestion along its routes,” and the “council may limit the number, times and routes of such animal-drawn conveyances.”
The Solvang Trolley & Carriage Company has catered to thousands of Solvang tourists since 1973.
The Council also called for an ordinance update that would allow the city manager to approve alternate routes in unusual situations such as the current street closures brought about by COVID-19.
“I want this trolley. I like the trolley. The residents like the trolley. The visitors like the trolley. So I’m in support of the trolley, but I’m tired of all the other garbage that goes on in this place,” said Mayor Pro Tem Robert Clarke.
Hector “Sal” Orona’s original application in 2007 was granted for a six-month trial period after his family bought from James Beg the business comprised of two Belgian draft horses, one trolley and a carriage. The Oronas have grown the business to 10 draft horses, two horse-drawn trolleys, four horse-drawn carriages, and one motorized trolley while facing the renewal application process and a $75 per vehicle animal conveyance fee annually.
Solvang Trolley’s license expired June 30, but General Manager Claudia Orona-Hudson said she tried to begin the renewal process in May. She said city lagged in response, imposed new, last-minute requirements, and, for the first time in their company history, compelled her to hire an attorney to level the playing field for a meeting with city staff which included City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt.
More than 20 residents appeared in person, via internet connections or telephone to voice their unwavering support of Solvang Trolley & Carriage Co. Others penned letters which were included in the agenda packet.
Supporters included Beg, veterinarian Benjamin Bramsen, Solvang Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tracy Beard, IDK Events President Scott Shuemake, residents, former employees, and Solvang’s own Santa Claus, Robert Seutter.
Wullbrandt, who lives in Ballard, said he donated space in his stable to a competing, out-of-area carriage company in 2019 “to allow carriages to stay there for a few days over Julefest, and I do find it just a slight bit offensive this constant idea that I’m somehow profiting and trying to destroy Solvang because I’m not. I love it here.”
But that didn’t sit well with the Oronas or their supporters.
Mission Santa Inés represents one of nine Spanish missions in California founded by Junipero Serra, there are 21 total, to serve as religious and military outposts to Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order between 1769 and 1823.
“The council is free to grant licenses to other operations. Healthy competition in business is fair. But don’t subsidize them with City of Solvang taxpayer dollars,” said former city employee Lisa Martin. “Don’t hand out special favors by finding or providing parking for their animals and equipment after kicking the Oronas out of their leased parking area. …Do not add unreasonable requirements and restrictions to the trolley’s license while making special concessions for others. These are unethical actions. You, as representatives of Solvang, should be supporting local businesses.”
But Djernaes, who took issue with the company serving solely as a “de facto monopoly,” paying no parking in-lieu-of fees, encroachment fees, sales tax nor other direct, financial contributions to city coffers beyond the annual vehicle fee, called the vote “pandering to the mob.”
“At the end of the day, I want people to understand: I’m not with these people. I know they want the trolley. God bless ’em, they can have the trolley. That’s not what I care about,” he said. “What I want to know: Is there a better way to serve the community? Should we have more than one provider of these services? We haven’t even asked that frickin’ question. Why? Are we afraid to ask questions? Is that called bullying because I dared, I had the audacity to question? No, that’s called leadership. And that’s what we do. We take the tough votes. We make the tough choices.”
Djernaes has repeatedly asked the city and the company to provide data “to help this council understand what it is that you do that this community cannot do without.”
During a Sept. 23, 2019 meeting, Waite called such a request “overstepping” and noted, “We are not asking this of every businesses in town.”
“I don’t like monopolies as a principal. I’m an economist. I think monopolies have no place in our community unless they do something so unusual, so unique that we can’t do without them, but unfortunately this particular business is not unique,” Djernaes said Monday in a 10-minute diatribe that ended with Toussaint’s broken gavel, a 3-1 vote (Djernaes dissenting) to limit discussion, and Djernaes walking out of the meeting.
Waite choked up as Orona-Hudson recounted a 2018 Julefest Parade incident in which the Oronas had expected council members to ride in their carriages only to see them riding in another conveyance, and a 2019 renewal process in which their application “fell through cracks because people were busy firing and hiring new city staff.”
“Having anyone in this town feel like you all feel — that you’re being treated unfairly by an entire council — to me it was really sad. It made me cry. And that is now how I feel,” Waite said before casting her vote.
Oronas-Hudson also addressed as hokum allegations of squatting, failure to pay rent, and storing equipment illegally, said the carriages serve as mobile visitors centers answering questions of paying customers and passing tourists alike, and questioned the city’s decision to hire another carriage company during 2019 Julefest.
“I don’t understand why it is made very easy for other companies to come and operate. So easy that they get paid to come and operate and we have to operate as any other business, to make ends meet just to keep the privilege of being part of this town,” she said. “My livelihood depends on the success of the city. I’m a proud resident and I want everyone to succeed here.”
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