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

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.

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.”

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.”

Come next year, the supervisors may not be able to delay a vote any longer. Once the second EIR comes back, public comments will be limited. Of the supervisors polled, none offered a clear-cut opinion, opting instead to wait for the facts to come out. Supervisor Gayle Uilkema deferred: “I like to support the supervisor whose district this is in. She’s the one out there talking to her constituents.”

An aide to the current Byron Supervisor, Millie Greenberg, said her boss hasn’t yet considered the topic, and wouldn’t be good for a comment one way or the other. “When it actually makes its way to her desk, then she’ll review the issue,” the aide said.

For the residents, a majority yes vote on the five-member board would effectively end their efforts. Under California state law, once the county approves the deal, the club owners can’t be sued over noise concerns. Still, that may not stop Silver Hills resident Rick Kendrick, who says the homeowners will sue if they lose. “Legal,” he said, “can last for a long, long time.”

Meanwhile the Contra Costa Water District, which owns an easement bordering the gun club’s land, has told Downs that it won’t allow any grading, which the club may need for the baffles the county would require. According to Downs, the water district’s attorneys alerted him they’ll go to court over the issue, but they’re waiting for the supes to approve the deal first.

“I’m sure just when we think we’ve got it done, something else will come up,” Downs said. “Always does.”

Howard Got His Gun

One morning at home, Howard Bowles offered to test-fire one of his guns, just to make his point. This is one of his favorite things to do for visitors who might make a difference in the debate. Two years ago he invited then-Supervisor Joe Canciamilla out for a testing, and when Bowles walked down into the club’s valley and fired, Downs called the county sheriff to have him arrested for trespassing. No one left in cuffs, but Downs sent Bowles a letter ending his club membership.

“There was nothing to discuss,” Downs said later. “He said he didn’t get a chance to tell his side of the story, but there was nothing to tell. He came on to this property and shot his gun when he didn’t have permission — end of story.”

Bowles doesn’t mind much. “So they told me I couldn’t be in their little club anymore,” he said. “That was fine with me.”

On this morning, Bowles grabbed a deer rifle he won in a raffle, and pocketed three shiny bullets. That he could even fire at will was a testament to the law of the unincorporated land; in the city, he’d probably get himself shot for this stunt. Out here, he’s within his rights — as long as he’s shooting straight.

Bowles wiggled his feet into a pair of topsiders on the back porch and trotted out about fifty yards under dark skies toward an oak tree at the edge of his land, a few hundred feet from where the gun range might sit. He assumed the ready stance and aimed toward a soft mound of dirt. He fired, and a sonic blast ripped across the country like a jet fighter, then tailed off. A team of horses, half a mile away but clearly visible from Bowles’ perched estate, skittered and pranced in circles.

Then came the second shot, followed by the terrified caws of birds. By now the confused horses were galloping in several directions.

Bowles cocked his gun once more — the sonic trails from the second shot still dissolving — and fired the final shot. It took a solid minute for silence to return, and when it did, it was remarkable. The horses were all but gone, as were the birds. Even the buzzing of the far-off motorcycles seemed to have come to a halt — perhaps they actually did, their riders stopping to ponder: Where the hell is that coming from?

Bowles shuffled back up to his house with the pleased expression of a man so convinced he had nothing left to say. But he did. “Didja hear it?” he chuckled.

A few minutes later Bowles reiterated that he’s not antigun, just antigun club on his turf. When he bought this house, that should’ve ended it right there. People live here now, and it’s too damn dangerous to have gun clubs and homes this close together. It’s the wrong project in the wrong place, he repeated more than once. “You know, they want to come in our backyard, shoot ’em up, have their fun, and then go back to their quiet backyard and go to sleep,” Bowles said, removing his topsiders at the back porch. He was miffed. “They wouldn’t want us shooting in their backyard.”

Their backyard. The words hung in the air for a moment along with the gunsmoke. Howard Bowles had moved atop this hill to escape from people, and now some yahoo down below was about to ruin it for him. It hadn’t dawned on Bowles that the day he planted those three skinny palm trees out front, he’d just as surely ruined it for someone else, that he’d just taken a piece of country living away from Ron Downs and folks like him. But something has to give. With each passing year, the knots on the rope of East County swell larger. And it’ll be just a matter of time before they start creeping up Howard’s Hill.

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