Home on the Range 

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

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Howard's Hill

No one has a better view of the proposed gun club than Howard Bowles, a semiretired 59-year-old who, along with his wife, Phyllis, recently completed construction on the lemon-colored home atop the southern ridge. Bowles is originally from Oklahoma and an avid hunter himself. He moved to Brentwood in the mid-1980s, and even joined Downs' club, using the Concord Avenue facility to sight his guns before deer season. But by 1999, Brentwood also had become too crowded for Bowles, so he headed for paradise. "This was meant to be our retirement home," he said one recent morning. "This is what we dreamed of."

The view from Bowles' estate is so impressive that on clear days during the summer he can see Mount Diablo to the northwest and glimpse the peaks of the Sierra Nevadas to the east. Down below, he can check the traffic commute and decide his course into Antioch or Brentwood. "It gets windy up here at night," Bowles said with the jolly manner befitting a man who has eleven grandchildren, "but other than that, at night it's quiet as a church mouse."

Until Bowles and his neighbors showed interest in Silver Hills, the subdivision had sat mostly untouched from the day it went on the market in 1996, according to one local real-estate broker. Unlike many of the rural plots that moved quickly during the '90s, Silver Hills was a hard sell. The daytime buzz from the motocross track and an active sandstone quarry nearby tended to spoil the bucolic silence for potential buyers. Its roller-coaster terrain also made it difficult and costly to build on. Furthermore, the county allowed the track's eccentric owner to host all-night raves on his property, bringing a strangely surreal element to the neighborhood. The moto playground still attracts hundreds of weekend warriors, many of who camp out in trailers and RVs and don't leave until Sunday night.

But when prices dropped for Silver Hills plots, Bowles bought the largest parcel on the tallest hill, which he playfully named "Howard's Hill." While the deal was in escrow, he recalls hearing a rumor that a gun club was interested in buying the valley below. Due diligence proved the rumor accurate, and when Bowles did the math, he realized he'd be sitting about three hundred feet up the slope from the shotgun range -- too far for shotgun spray to reach him, but certainly too close for comfort.

From Bowles' perspective, the idea of county administrators allowing bullets to fly so close to homes was ludicrous. He figured the project would never get off the ground, so he bought his plot and went to the planning commission meeting, expecting reason and safety to nip the project in the bud. "Oh, it was loaded with good ol' boys," Bowles recalled, "cowboy boots, cowboy hats. They were all laughing and joking with Ron. We walked in there and knew we didn't have a chance."

Still, as a member of Downs' gun club, Bowles thought his nuanced position might gain favor with the planning commission. "When I say, 'I'm a gun club member,' they know I'm not antigun," he said. "It shows them this is not a gun issue I'm upset about. It's a safety issue."

Following the planning commission loss, Bowles rallied his neighbors and got them to chip in for an attorney. Bowles lives closest to the range, but he also has enlisted homeowners from outside Silver Hills, reminding them that if they think motocross is noisy, just wait until a gunshot rings out -- or fifty, for that matter.

One of the residents Bowles educated was Salvador Gallando, who moved to Byron in 1996. For a bullet to reach Gallando's estate, it would have to travel up the valley wall, over the crest where Bowles' home sits, down the other side, and across a flat plain. Yet Gallando's true concern is noise, and the threat he believes Downs' club poses to his dream. He worked as a landscaper in Pleasant Hill for decades before moving his family to Byron. "When I dreamt of building a million-dollar home, I wanted to put it in a place where it would be next to no one," said Gallando, who'd shown up at Bowles' place with some of the others to press his case. "This is my dream home," he said, looking out over the landscape, "and if a gun range comes in, I'll wish I never bought it."

Bowles and his neighbors are often asked who bought their properties first -- the homeowners, or the club. The answers vary. Bowles says he closed escrow before the club did, but several others in Silver Hills bought afterward, with full knowledge of the club's intentions.

To Donna Kendrick, whose family moved from Livermore into Silver Hills after Downs already had unveiled his plans, the issue of who was here first is moot: The settlers have arrived. A corner of the Kendricks' property touches the gun club's. "We think they're insensitive to the fact that people live here now, and it's dangerous for us," she said. "We have kids who run around on the land."

Kendrick's husband, Rich, concurred. "I hope they find a place to go. I can understand their frustration," he said. "They think we're the people from the city, we come out here with our SUVs, and we're demanding we get things our way. But that's not just the case. How can they say that about someone like Sal? He's been out here since 1996."

Rick Kendrick paused, then underscored his point. "We were here first."

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