Therapeutic Equestrian Center could be forced to move

- For 21 years, Michael Hajaistron's mother, Kim, has brought him to the Bakas Equestrian Center in Westchase.

He takes riding lessons, therapy for his autism.

"Horses also can't speak," said Heidi Ferraro, whose son also attends lessons. "They can connect in a way that they can't connect with others."

200 of those with special needs attend lessons there, mostly once a week, for a half-hour.

"Whether you have a child with a diagnosis or not, at the end of the day, every parent wants their child to be happy, and this is his happy place," said Ferraro.

But the land, which is owned by the Hillsborough County parks department, is surrounded by Tom Pepin's estate.

The beverage distributor and philanthropist is asking the county under state law to swap the Bakas land in favor of property 25 miles away in Seffner, near the intersection of Kingsway and Pruett Roads in Seffner.

In a letter to the county, Pepin says it would have twice as much usable land, that he'd pay to construct similar facilities, let them use the old property in the meantime, and allow students with special needs at Pepin Academy to use the current stables afterwards.

He says it would double accessibility to these kinds of programs.

"I am so afraid," said Jill Benson, a 38-year-old participant. "I don't want to move."

Parents say Pepin's offer of $450,000 is a low ball and that the hour drive is prohibitive for all but twenty of their current participants.

"He could build a million-dollar facility with gold toilets, but no one can make it out there," said Hajaistron.

They also say the new property is low on shade, near too many major roads, and that seven sex offenders live nearby, compared to zero at Bakas.

But none of that means much to Benson, who has downs syndrome and has been attending Bakas for twelve years.

"The point is, I love this place so much."

Tom Pepin said in a statement that he "Understands their emotional attachment to the current facility but hopes that they would be empathetic to all those we can serve in the eastern part of the county for the greater good."

It will be up to the county administrator and then the county board of commissioners to decide on this prospective land swap.

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