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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....