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 4 of 6

When the county hired two outside shooting-range consultants to determine whether Ron Downs' design could fit in the Byron valley without problems, both approved the project. For shotguns facing Bowles' home, a lengthy overhead ceiling would keep shooters from aiming too high, and a cement "shot curtain" would suffice as a backstop. The other shooting galleries faced the quarry, and even those would use "baffles" to keep the path of the bullets low. Still, some risk was unavoidable -- there's plenty of evidence to suggest stray bullets can find their way off ranges. At the San Quentin outdoor range in February, a bullet fired by a California Highway Patrol officer ricocheted into the windshield of a parked (and unoccupied) transit bus a mile away. "The risk of a bullet leaving a shooting range can never be eliminated," one of the range experts noted in his report to the county.

After Ron Downs and his club won the planning commission's approval in March 2000, he would have been reasonable to assume that, barring any major discoveries -- Indian remains unearthed, spotted owls seen overhead -- he'd gain approval from county supervisors within a year, possibly two.

The land was zoned for recreation, and the homeowners he'd one day argue with still hadn't moved in. According to planners in the community development department and officials of nearby cities who've ushered various projects through the county bureaucracy, Downs' wait of nearly five years seems to have set an unofficial record. "It was unfair for the county to push him off the [Brentwood] land in the first place, then approve the land sale, and then hold it up," says Pete Petrovich, a member of both the Brentwood City Council and Downs' gun club. "Now the club is the one holding the bag. They've got the land, but they can't do anything with it."

When the project first came before the full board for final approval in August 2001, Silver Hills attorney David Trotter persuaded the supervisors to delay their decision. Trotter had hired a noise consultant who testified that a gun discharge, unlike the buzz of the mototrack that already swirled in the area, would jolt instant confusion and fear into residents: Where did the shot come from? Is it headed toward me?

Trotter argued the noise would violate the county's general plan requirement barring projects that "upset the tranquillity" of the area. "How can allowing a gun club contribute to the tranquillity of the area?" the lawyer asked. "How can the construction of a fifty-foot cement wall and a six-foot security fence contribute to the natural landscape of the watershed property?" Downs' attorney, Alex Wilhelmy, countered that the area was already besmirched by a racetrack -- and how tranquil was that?

Still, the supes gave future residents the benefit of the doubt and ordered an Environmental Impact Report at a cost of $120,000 to the club. When the report arrived in December, both sides picked it apart to bolster their arguments. Undeniably, the gun club would add sharp blasts of noise to the area -- but not loud enough to violate sound ordinances on land zoned for recreational use.

The EIR also suggested a "shot curtain" to catch stray bullets should be erected at the base of the hill leading toward Bowles' property. Downs' attorneys deemed the EIR a success and argued for the plan's quick approval. But Trotter and his clients launched a counterattack, using the report's public comments section to submit 55 questions for county developers. Trotter's consultants raised meticulous environmental queries, wondering what effect the project would have on the seldom-seen fairy shrimp, and whether lead from the bullets would leach into the groundwater and affect the protected California tiger salamander.

Last year, county-hired biologist Geoff Monk found salamander hatchlings in a crater of still water on the gun club's land, a discovery that threw Downs' project into a environmentalist quagmire. The salamander is federally listed for special protection in two counties, and the state Fish and Game Department plans to decide next May whether the species deserves statewide protection. If the answer is yes, Downs may be forced to purchase wetlands for the salamander at another site.

Monk's find, Downs gripes, came from a "puddle" formed after his motocross neighbor cut a dirt access road across the property. No matter; the hatchlings got the attention of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Save Mount Diablo, which proceeded to thrust themselves into the debate and weigh in on several key issues. "We don't feel the impact to the environment justifies a handful of people using it for a range," says Tim Donahue, chair of the Sierra Club's Delta Group chapter. "There's no way to mitigate the noise impact, and there's simply no way to get around it."

At the supervisors' meeting in February, Downs invited area members of the National Rifle Association to fill the chambers and demonstrate the support a gun club could muster. Not to be outdone, Silver Hills attorney Trotter brought out environmentalists to speak for the California tiger salamander and the havoc lead poisoning would wreak on its habitat. The evening ended with the supervisors again asking county bureaucrats for further research to sew up details on the salamander issue. The bureaucrats, in turn, asked Downs for another $12,000 to fund the work.

To an outside party like Byron historian Kathy Leighton, Downs and Bowles are both right: This isn't about guns. Instead, Leighton considers the drawn-out battle representative of what's slowing East County's development to a halt. West Contra Costa County grew unchecked in the last decade, she says, and the supervisors have been looking to impose their "smart growth" restrictions on what remains -- East County. Byron is stuck somewhere in the middle.

Leighton has watched as the knots along the highway rope swelled too quickly, and the open range got paved too fast. The days when the county supervisors allowed communities to make their own choices are over. Now, when developers come into an unincorporated town like Byron, the historian said, they're beset by county-imposed surveys that jam up projects for years, leaving residents on both sides of the development in a holding pattern, never sure what their community is destined to look like.

"Byron doesn't have a growth problem," Leighton said. "It's just the opposite. I think a lot of people who live on the other side [of the county], who live in their pink little condos, look to a place like this and use smart growth as a justification to keep all this land open. They're trying to make up for the mistakes they made over there."

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