The New West spawns a new kind of range war

  • Gusty, a sheep dog, does his stuff while Terri Warner watches

    Nancy Richmond photo
 

DURANGO, Colo. - The lawyers outnumber the sheep in the Shenandoah sheep war.

It started one morning about three years ago, when Edward and Adalou Dunne woke up to find eight sheep grazing in the yard next to theirs in Shenandoah, a subdivision of large lots where green pastures roll and dirt roads unwind in view of the snowcapped La Plata Mountains of southern Colorado.

It is the sort of scenery that moves a lot of people into moving to the state.

Shenandoah is about 15 minutes southeast of Durango, but whether it is in rural La Plata County or suburbia is in hot dispute. The Dunnes, who retired to Shenandoah from the Chicago area, weren't happy to see the sheep next door at Paul and Terrianne Warner's.

"This is an upscale, high-end residential area, and you pay a premium to live here," Edward Dunne says. "If I wanted to buy farmland, I would have gone somewhere else and bought farmland."

The Dunnes have been arguing with the Warners about the flock ever since. The trouble between neighbors led to the Dunnes suing the Warners, Shenandoah and its officials in March 1996 over homeowner covenants, the rules that attempt to protect property values and bind residents into a shared vision of "the good life."

The last attempt at mediation, in August, failed. Now amended and resubmitted Sept. 15, the lawsuit has mushroomed to include all the owners of about 50 homesites in the subdivision, whom the court ruled were indispensable parties in the litigation. Everyone must either choose sides or declare they want to keep out of it. Summonses are still being served.

Everyone agrees that some horses and cows are allowed; sheep are a different story.

"For some reason, the Dunnes think that sheep are not classy enough," says Tom Dugan, the attorney representing the Warners, Northwesterners who have lived in the Durango area for 10 years.

For the Warners, the sheep war started with a stray dog, a border collie mix they found on the Navajo Reservation and brought home to Shenandoah. The Warners soon learned that Gusty, and the three other border collies they eventually brought into their home, have intense personalities and a keen work ethic. They want to herd. They live to herd. So the Warners bought some sheep.

"We're the only people who bought our pets eight pets of their own," Terri Warner says.

The couple is heavily involved with the 4-H Club, training border collies and competing. They don't make money doing this; they say they spend a lot of money on it.

They bought another lot, an adjacent one, more sheep, and they say they do most of the training on land out of sight of the Dunnes. The number of sheep varies, but an average is about a dozen sheep on a dozen acres.

"They're cute sheep," attorney Tom Dugan says. "I grew up in New York City, and I think they're cute." He says in the spring and summer the emerald hills kept trim and lush by the Warners' small woolly drill team remind him of Ireland.

Terri Warner says the Dunnes look at them as if they'll next bring in a dozen broken-down, rusted-out cars to keep in the yard. Paul Warner says he told the Dunnes their Cheviot sheep are the same kind the Queen of England keeps in her yard. Dunne was unmoved by the information, he reports.

"This is about more than sheep," says attorney Keith Newbold, a partner in Shand, Newbold & Chapman, the firm that is representing the Dunnes. "It is about sheep in the sense that the Dunnes bought under covenants that precluded sheep and now here are sheep right outside their window. It is also about enforcement of covenants. If covenants are waived and continue to be waived, they lose meaning."

Dugan says the war over sheep has divided the subdivision into different camps. It's the sort of conflict, he says, that gives people a knot in their stomachs when they drive by some of their neighbors' houses.

"I've done a lot of covenant work and I've never seen a case like this before," Dugan says. "Even if you win this lawsuit, there's such discord left among neighbors."

At the annual homeowners' association meeting in July, Dugan says, a disagreement over procedures incited one person to throw a copy of Robert's Rules of Order at another participant, who threw it back.

"At that point I knew we had a serious problem," he says.

At Halloween, some residents dressed as sheep, accompanied by their "attorneys."

"It's nice that some people have a sense of humor about this, but I can tell you their numbers are dwindling," Dugan says.

Edward Dunne says there's a lot of history behind the case "and a lot of hard feelings out here."

Some of that history: Before Shenandoah Ltd. partners F.L. Hutchison and W. Rowland Carmack developed the 250-acre Shenandoah subdivision, the land belonged to Gary Farmer. He ran sheep on it, several thousand.

Shenandoah's first declaration of protective covenants, recorded in October 1984, ran two pages long. One of the lengthiest articles stated that no large animals, such as horses or cows, were allowed on tracts smaller than five acres. One such animal would be allowed for each five acres of a tract.

"No pigs or sheep are allowed," the declaration read.

Hutchison and Carmack sought to revoke the first set of covenants in April 1989 and adopted in their place a 24-page document. It states that "two horses or bovine animals may be kept on a lot of five or less acres' and "one additional such animal may be kept for each additional three acres of lot area." Sheep and pigs are not mentioned.

In their lawsuit, the Dunnes allege that the 1984 covenants that specifically prohibited sheep were not properly revoked. They also allege that the 1989 set specifies which animals are allowed, and its silence on sheep means sheep are not allowed.

The Warners asked that the homeowners' board grant approval for them to have sheep on their property. The board approved the request in a 3-2 vote.

Steve Jacobs, a director for the homeowners' association, who is credited with being the first person to observe that the members of the various legal teams were becoming more numerous than the contested sheep, is now reluctant to talk about the case because he is personally named in the lawsuit, like it or not.

"I prefer to remain innocuous," he says when asked to comment, but finally adds, "I really wish this thing would go away. It's just unfortunate that somebody has to sue 50 of their neighbors."

Coincidentally, Jacobs says, he and the Dunnes are from the same Chicago suburb, Northbrook, Ill.

"Ain't it a small world."

Jacobs says he retired to Colorado to enjoy life, participate in the community, work, play, "raise critters."

But everybody had a different idea of what they were buying into at Shenandoah, which is carved into three- to 35-acre lots. Jacobs says he wanted part of rural Colorado. He muses that perhaps some of his neighbors wanted something more akin to Beverly Hills.

Everybody comes here with their preconceived image of the West and Rocky Mountain splendor, Dugan says. Unfortunately, in La Plata County, a lot of dreams collided. No trial date has been set.

Electa Draper worked until recently for the Durango Herald; she now writes for The Denver Post.

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