Home on the Range 

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

Page 2 of 6

Four and a half years ago, all Ron Downs wanted was a safe place to shoot his guns. Ever since county developers showed him where Highway 4 would cut near his club's range on Brentwood's Concord Avenue, he's been running from sprawl. At first, his choice was to hold fast but risk losing the parcel through eminent domain. Then planners from Blackhawk-Nunn Partners, one of Contra Costa County's richest and largest developers, came begging for his scrap of land. With the county's approval, Downs sold, but with a caveat: The developers couldn't close his club's doors until they built up a new site for his business.

"I told him I didn't care if he built one more house in this county," Downs recalls of his meeting with Blackhawk-Nunn co-owner Ron Nunn. "We'd stay put until we got a new [club]."

Byron looked like a good fit. As you drive east across the county's northern flank on Highway 4, the cities of East County bulge like knots on a rope: Pittsburg (pop. 57,000), Antioch (92,000), Oakley (26,000), and then Brentwood (26,000). Most of this growth is new. According to the East Bay Community Foundation, the area's population surged 11.5 percent in the last five years -- the fastest in Contra Costa County. When Highway 4 dips south into the country, the road narrows, and the towns get smaller. Byron, population 915, sits at the very end amid a quilt of farms and pastures. Main Street -- oops, you just passed it by -- houses an antiques store, auto shop, and local museum.

Kathy Leighton and her family have lived in Byron for seven generations. As the area's unofficial historian, she has written a book about East County, and she sits on the Byron Municipal Advisory Committee. At 58, she can tell the same stories most Byronites are all too familiar with: A trip to the grocery store in Brentwood used to take ten minutes; now it's thirty in light traffic. Byron used to serve as the seat of East County; now it's a ghost town most popular for its motocross track.

"I empathize with both sides," Leighton said one recent morning. "If I lived up there, I'd probably be right with them, trying to keep the gun club out. But I also see how [the club owners] went into the site thinking they'd found a great place, that the terrain was perfect for the club. They were led to believe it was zoned and ready to go, that it'd be a walk in the park." She laughed. "It wasn't."

When Brentwood Rod and Gun was founded in the early 1950s, it was one of a handful of shooting clubs in the East Bay. Clubs in Walnut Creek, Bay Point, Concord, and Martinez all opened their doors to gunsmiths and hunters during the '40s and '50s as a place to hang out and exchange expertise on their sport. Like many of his fellow members, Ron Downs was brought into the Brentwood club as a sort of rite of passage. He shot trap with his father and took his hunter safety permit courses from a guy who doubled as Brentwood's barber. He got his club membership card when he was a teenager.

Now, private gun clubs are difficult to find. Most ranges, such as Concord's United Sportsmen Inc., have opened up to the public, if only to keep their booths filled year-round. Yet Downs' club remains one of the few private dens in the East Bay, and to its members that distinction is more than just a testament to survival. Strict regulations at public ranges require shooters to fire all at once, cease on cue, and refrain from rapid firing. For the gun novice training for a permit, a public range is all that's needed.

But a private club allows the more seasoned sportsman to shoot on his own schedule and socialize with like-minded aficionados. Downs says about 30 percent of Brentwood's members are competitive sharpshooters practicing for a slot on the Olympic team -- some have made it -- or for national competitions, like Downs himself. Another 30 percent, he says, are law enforcement agents, many of whom prefer honing their skills on scenarios more diverse and targets more difficult than a public stall affords. At Downs' proposed club site, for example, members will be able to "run 'n' shoot" -- that is, set up targets along the vast terrain and literally run and shoot. The targets, usually cut in the shape of a deer or a boar, can be arranged in varying positions depending on the member's skill level.

By the time Downs found the Byron location, he had become frustrated with his partners at Blackhawk-Nunn. The developer had turned down dozens of his suggestions for new sites, and Highway 4 was finally close enough to shutter the club's Concord Avenue location, leaving members with nowhere to shoot. Anxious to kick-start his project, Downs finagled a getaway plan. The developer agreed to buy the Byron property, then put $1 million into a fund that allowed Downs the option of waiting for the company to develop his new range or, if he saw fit, taking the money and going it alone.

After waiting eighteen months with nothing to show for it, Downs realized the developer would just as soon keep the cash in a pot rather than design, survey, and take part in the political nightmare of building a shooting range. So he took the money and ran, coming out $1.2 million richer after interest. On the surface, it looked like a good move for a country boy forced to negotiate with big developers.

Downs had miscalculated, however. Usually, commercial land buyers purchase on a contingency plan. In his case, the sale could have hinged on whether he received all the necessary use permits from the county. But Downs bought the land outright, and he no longer had Blackhawk-Nunn's legal team to help him maneuver the county's community development department. Even though the planning commission has approved the project, the county supervisors haven't -- and to this day, that's what matters most.

"Now, I don't know if that was such a wise decision," Downs said of his choice to cut ties with the developer.

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