Junk rule pits rural ideals against suburban standards

  • Details from the yard of rat-rod builder Luis Virgilio.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • Details from the yard of rat-rod builder Luis Virgilio.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • Details from the yard of rat-rod builder Luis Virgilio.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • Details from the yard of rat-rod builder Luis Virgilio.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
  • Carl Bannowsky with some of the 500 junk cars he keeps behind his doublewide in northern New Mexico.

    Sierra Crane-Murdoch
 

Last spring, San Juan County in northern New Mexico hired a plane to survey its interior.  An aerial tour of the scrubby hills and swales revealed quite a bit about the county: Pump jacks, two generating stations and a refinery are evidence that it runs primarily on coal and oil. And though it has experienced busts, its cities have swelled with recent booms, pushing subdivisions deeper into the sagebrush. But a closer look, at backyards festooned with old cars and their estranged parts, suggests that the county's rural reaches support some informal enterprise. The line where irrigated lawns and looping cul-de-sacs abut dusty salvage yards is where the conflict began.

County junk rules are common in the West, and Ordinance 72, which the San Juan County Commission passed last winter, is at face value unremarkable. Come June of 2013, a resident may keep only three unregistered vehicles in open view; the rest must be crushed or hidden under tarps, inside a building or behind an eight-foot fence. Such rules have passed relatively peaceably elsewhere, but this has done the opposite. More than 200 people crowded a hearing in August to call it an "insult to freedom." Some threatened to sue. In January, a "convoy" of 70 clanking cars crowded the commission parking lot. A protester named Carl Bannowsky, wearing a silver-buckle belt and snakeskin boots, listed the vehicles in attendance like items at a road show. "We had street riders, hot rodders, rat rodders, roundy-round racers, antique trucks, antique tractors. ..." Some, he said, came from his own salvage yard.

Bannowsky is a conspicuous offender of Ordinance 72. In the wide swale behind his doublewide trailer, he keeps more than 500 cars and often sells parts. Their bright, rusted carcasses are jacked in the air and slightly askew, tumbleweeds caught in undercarriages. "You can't go down to an Autozone and buy a '56 Chevy fender," he says. "They were made with workmanship and pride. The new ones are rolled out like eggs." Bannowsky won't crush or cover his cars, and hopes they'll be there to the day he dies.

Others have responded with equal defiance, calling for a public vote. "We knew this was going to be a controversial move," says Larry Hathaway, development administrator for the county, "and so we tried to make it not too intrusive." Junk collectors, for example, may choose from 12 colors to paint their fences, including "military olive" and "covert green."

These concessions did little to quell protests, though, and commissioners showed little sympathy. In July, they established an office tasked entirely with collecting fines and enforcing the rule. Their justification was economic: As San Juan County climbs out of recession, they hope to lure investors and families with a tidy desert aesthetic. Real estate developers were among the first to call for the ordinance, saying junked vehicles lowered property values. One developer, convinced his real estate wasn't selling because it bordered a flock of old Volkswagens, waited for his neighbor to die, bought the land, cleared its junk and made a profit. Commissioners, likewise, imagine that a county purged of detritus might appeal to higher-ups at companies like Conoco Phillips and Western Refining, which have sizable local operations. "It was difficult to get a new doctor or oil executive into the area," says Hathaway. "We needed to clean things up."

The trouble, however, is that San Juan County is excellent junk habitat. Metal rusts slowly in the arid climate. One collector, Ron Lyman, says the reason he moved his shop out of downtown Farmington was to find space for his scrap. "I built racecars for years, and every time I turn around, the city ordinance gal was there, complaining about me parking in my own alley. So I said, 'We're moving to the country, where I have the freedom to do what I want to do.' " Lyman kept to himself until he heard of the ordinance. "I just woke up one morning and thought, I'm losing my freedom. I'm sitting here on my big fat heinie and not doing a thing about it."

Lyman has only a few dozen vehicles and two outbuildings; he could, if he chose, comply in a matter of hours. Instead, he's organizing another convoy and running for county commissioner next year -- just in time, he says, to revoke the ordinance. "We're going to turn heads. We're going to say, 'You better wake up and see what's happening to your lifestyle.' "

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

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