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Horse-drawn carriages are banned for now, but some are champing at the bit for that to change.

Rich Mckay

Sentinel Staff Writer, Orlando Sentinal - March 8, 2006

For the time being, at least, horse-drawn carriages are banned in Orlando.

An animal-rights group won its day in court Tuesday when a judge struck down the city's ordinance allowing the service.

But Orange Circuit Judge Jay P. Cohen's ruling was a technical one. He found that the city didn't follow the rules in November when it allowed the carriages to continue operating.

Now the city needs to have more public input on the issue and bring it before the City Council for a new vote. If commissioners approve, as expected, the horses will be back in action. But in the time it takes for all of that to happen -- possibly a few weeks or a month -- some brides and grooms may face carriage-less weddings.

Cohen predicted the temporary ban may "test the romantic creativity of the groom."

The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida sued the city because its members didn't have a chance to oppose the practice of horse-drawn carriages when council members voted to allow the practice to continue.

Although carriages have operated in Orlando for years, the issue came before commissioners last fall because of unique circumstances.

At the time, one company -- Orlando Carriage Co. -- held all 10 permits that the city allows for horse-drawn carriages. That company went out of business, but the former owner didn't relinquish the permits.

That effectively shut the barn doors on horse carriages.

City Hall was besieged by calls from desperate wedding planners trying to get horse-drawn carriages for impending nuptials, and they wanted city leaders to move fast.

Holding two public hearings -- the normal procedure for approval of city ordinances -- could have taken two months because of the holidays, Assistant City Attorney Natasha Permaul said.

So the city declared the lack of horse carriages an emergency and put the practice on a fast track with just one public hearing followed by an immediate vote by council members, who approved unanimously. The city's lawyers argued that the City Council had the power to decide what amounted to an emergency, Permaul said.

But the Animal Rights Foundation, based in Fort Lauderdale, cried foul.

"It's patently absurd that it would rise to the level of an emergency," said Howard Marks, who represents the animal group.

He also said that because the city didn't follow the rules, his clients were denied the right to speak at public hearings.

Cohen agreed. He said the city can either challenge his ruling or "go back to the drawing board" on public notice.

Permaul said the city likely would just give notice for public hearings and let the council vote on the matter again later this month. It wasn't clear Tuesday if the city would need to hold two new public hearings or one.

Heather Veleanu the animal group's managing director, called the ruling a victory.

"We'd like the practice to be banned entirely," she said.

Several Florida cities have banned the practice, including Palm Beach, Deerfield Beach and Key West. Veleanu said making horses draw carriages and walk on paved streets is cruel.

But local horse-carriage owners, including Kent Castleman, owner of Whispering Pines Ranch & Carriage Co., said he doesn't know what all the fuss is about. He said none of the horses are abused.

"They eat before I do," he said. "They get mash and three kinds of hay. A warm place to rest in winter, a cool fan in the summer. Apart from rocking them to sleep every night, I'm not sure what these people want."

City Commissioner Patty Sheehan said the animal-rights group shouldn't expect a different outcome at another council vote.

"They want to make this into a political issue -- fine," she said. "But people here find the horses charming, they add to the ambience of downtown and we don't have a problem with it."

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