Home on the Range 

Howard Bowles built his dream home in rural Byron, right next to the dream home of Ron Downs' gun club.

The Land

Earlier this autumn, Ron Downs took a walk across the forty acres of land his gun club had purchased, and liked what he saw. To the south, a steep hill -- good for catching bullets. To the west, another hill. To the east, another. And to the north, some rolling dunes. Downs stopped and stood at the base of what now looked like a geological funnel surrounding him as a light rain started to fall. He ignored it, and pointed to a slant of dirt due south.

"That's where the shotgun guys will aim," he said. "They'll go right into that hill."

A few hundred feet away at the top of the ridge, just barely visible between curled oak trees, a newly constructed two-story home rose from the skyline like a large lemon cake. Next to it, scaffolding held up three rail-thin palm trees, the kind that get planted in new shopping malls for glitz. Downs looked up at the house in the distance and shook his head. "And that's the guy who's got a problem."

Downs is the president of the 350-member-strong Brentwood Rod and Gun Club, and if it were up to him, he wouldn't need this valley of soil located in the unincorporated town of Byron. Back in 1999, his club was squeezed from its old range in Brentwood on two fronts: construction on the Highway 4 bypass, and an encroaching Blackhawk development -- more homes, a golf course, a few strip malls. When Downs found this plot, the only direct neighbor was a motocross track on the far side of the dunes. The track owner, who also owned the land, sold the valley to Downs, and as far as locations for outdoor firing ranges went, you couldn't ask for a better spot: no one out here but some field mice and noise-happy moto junkies.

But around the same time Downs signed the deed in the summer of 1999, a half-dozen parcels to the south were snapped up by families looking to buy a bit of country living. Plans were drawn up for a gated community called Silver Hills. The houses would be gargantuan, with detached garages and roundabout driveways. Despite the residential concerns lurking on the horizon, Downs knew the southern hill separated the future neighborhood from his gun range. So the president figured his club wouldn't bother the neighbors much.

Unlikely. After Downs' project slid past the East County Regional Planning Commission in a 4-to-1 vote, his future neighbors appealed. Then they hired a lawyer. Since then, Downs has entered into the democratic process for those who develop land, which amounts to delays, surveys, Environmental Impact Reports, packed town hall meetings, more delays, more surveys, and more Environmental Impact Reports. He says the club's investment now approaches five years and half a million dollars, and that that's far too high a cost for him to consider backing off now -- or ever.

In February, after the most recent draft EIR was sent back to county planners for yet more research, the big guns came down from the racks. Downs found himself backed at public meetings by ribbon-wearing area members of the National Rifle Association. The homeowners, meanwhile, enlisted the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to bolster their arguments.

Yet to Downs, the issue isn't one of gun fanatics versus tree-hugger types -- that's just too easy, too cardboard. It's about the subtle way the new settlers have changed life in east Contra Costa County. Downs grew up in nearby Oakley, back when the population was below six hundred, back when he could walk onto the vast acreage behind his home and rattle off a few shots and wake no one. Hell, everyone had a gun. But as East Bay residents continue to move further east and fill in the once-rural communities, they bring not just their money and splendid cars, but their city attitudes, the club owner says.

In this case, Downs says critics of his gun club are rattled only because the realities of life in the middle of nowhere haven't jibed neatly with their romantic notions. They came out here for a "piece of serenity," as Oprah might say, and they want everything just so. For a guy like Downs, who's lived here all his life, what's at stake now is the identity of the open range, the last frontier of East County. The gun club hasn't moved too close to these people. They've simply moved too close to a gun club.

"They think they can drag this out forever, run me dry with legal fees and surveys on things like the fairy shrimp," Downs said, referring to one of the environmental concerns his project has raised. "They think I'll go away. Guess what? I won't. They picked the wrong guy."


The Town

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