MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This is the story about a donkey. But it's really about something more.
BLOCK: It's about land and how we use land. Starting today and from time to time this year, we'll visit communities coping with growth and change. And we'll hear how that affects their land use. We call these stories: Shifting Ground.
SIEGEL: Today, we traveled to Golden Valley, Nevada. People there are grappling with suburban sprawl that come up with an innovative way, to keep their rural character and their farm animals.
As independent producer David Baron reports, that's where the donkey comes in.
DAVID BARON: His name, Sweet Water Red Gambler.
(Soundbite of donkey braying)
BARON: He's a mammoth jack - a large male donkey. His coat, a mix of cinnamon and white. He was born in Tennessee, but as a young animal, he went west to Nevada.
Ms. NANCY BONHAM (Donkey owner): We got Gambler, seven years ago. He was the gentlest, kindest creature.
BARON: Nancy Bonham and husband, Lee, bought Gambler as both a pet and a work animal. They planned to breed mules on their four-acre property.
Ms. BONHAM: This is owned agricultural, which meant that we can have horses, cows, pigs, dogs, goats, whatever we wanted. I mean, within limits on four acres - without any restrictions.
BARON: They erected a large pipe corral. They bought six breeding mares. Now, where they live is not farmland. Golden Valley is a residential area just north of Reno, a cluster of homes in high desert. But if you were a donkey, you'd think this would be a good place to live. Most everyone here has animals.
(Soundbite of goats bleating)
BARON: Penny Freeman(ph) owns pygmy goats.
Ms. PENNY FREEMAN (Pygmy Goats Owner): They're Daisy(ph), Crime-leader(ph), Pancho(ph), Willy(ph)…
BARON: They were born on Cinco de Mayo. Her neighbors breed Weimaraner.
(Soundbite of dogs barking)
BARON: Down the road, Randy Robison(ph) raises chickens.
(Soundbite of chicken cackling)
Mr. RANDY ROBISON (Chicken Breeder): We have up to about 600 sometimes.
BARON: So, the Bonhams figured their donkey would fit right in. And he did, for a time.
Ms. BONHAM: Gambler was here for about a year and a half or so, before the neighbor started complaining.
BARON: It was one neighbor. And five years ago, his complaint landed the Bonhams in county court for violating a noise ordinance.
(Soundbite of court proceeding)
Unidentified Man #1: All right. Do you solemnly swear the testimony you about to give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Unidentified Man #2: Yes, I do.
Unidentified Man #1: Thank you.
BARON: The neighbor, Bill Calvert, declined to talk for this story, but he testified in court that Gambler's braying kept him from sleeping on a regular basis.
Mr. BILL CALVERT: The donkey has woken me up 215 times in 114 days that I was home.
BARON: Other neighbors testified for the defense. They said Gambler's braying sometimes caused them to shut windows at night, but they didn't consider him a nuisance. But Judge Harold Albright didn't buy it.
Judge HAROLD ALBRIGHT: People ought to be able to sleep in their houses. I don't think the whole neighborhood has to close their windows, and buy fans and sit in their house, so you can have a donkey.
BARON: The verdict, guilty.
Judge ALBRIGHT: I can sentence you up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine on these matters.
BARON: Now, Judge Albright didn't do that. He assessed a fine of $170, but he threatened far heftier punishment if Gambler ended up back in court.
Ms. BONHAM: My lawyer was in shock - all of our neighbors.
BARON: The news echoed across Golden Valley.
Mr. NEAL COBB (Horse Owner): I'm what? I'm a mile away from the Bonhams. Boy I knew all about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BARON: Neal Cobb owns horses.
Mr. COBB: Anybody that had animals says, oh, my God, what are they going to do, so this was some scary business for all of us.
BARON: At that time, Sarah Chvilicek headed a citizen's advisory board for Golden Valley and nearby communities. She heard from a lot of animal lovers.
Ms. SARAH CHVILICEK (Head, Golden Valley Citizen's Advisory Board): They were saying that you know, wait a minute, we have our horses here, we have our cattle here, we have our goats, our pigs, our lambs, our peacocks, our dogs and cats, you know? And if someone complains about a braying donkey, then what's next?
BARON: They feared a flood of complaints was coming. Nevada is and was the fastest growing state, and the sprawl of Reno was swallowing Golden Valley. Old-time residents feared newcomers would try to drive the animals out, so livestock owners decided to fight back. Chvilicek says, the fight wasn't just about saving animals.
Ms. CHVILICEK: It wasn't about saving ourselves; it's about saving our lifestyle.
BARON: Residents approached the county. They said they wanted to find ways to preserve the area's rural character in the face of growth. And they came up with a new policy. Eric Young is a planner with Nevada's Washoe County.
Mr. ERIC YOUNG (Washoe County Planner, Nevada): And so what we've implemented is a rule that says purchasers of new homes in new subdivisions have to be informed of the existence of noise and odor from livestock in the community. It's in the form of a disclosure at the time of sale, that there may be donkeys braying and you may smell their manure, and that a rooster may wake you up in the morning.
BARON: Residents hope this disclosure will serve as a repellant warning sign that will keep those who don't like animals out of Golden Valley. And if people do move in and then complain about animals, residents hope those complaints will carry less weight. After all, newcomers can't say they weren't warned.
The policy is so new, no one yet knows how effective it will be. But fights over animals are increasingly common across the country as suburbia invades rural areas. And agricultural law expert Neil Hamilton, of Drake University in Des Moines, says Washoe County's new policy is worth watching.
Mr. NEIL HAMILTON (Agricultural Law Expert, Drake University): It's certainly interesting. It's a good example of a kind of a homegrown democracy-type idea. Well, we ought to protect ourselves, but you know, this type of ordinance wouldn't necessarily prevent a nuisance suit.
BARON: Hamilton says the essence of nuisance law is reasonableness. Is it reasonable for a neighbor to have a donkey given the area? He says what's reasonable can change as the land changes. And that means, even with the new policy in place, Golden Valley's livestock owners may have a hard time convincing a judge that animal noises are reasonable as the area becomes more suburban, which brings us back to Nancy and Lee Bonham and their donkey Gambler.
After they lost in court, the Bonhams felt they had no choice but to get rid of Gambler. Lee Bonham says, between the legal fees, and the failed mule breeding business, he lost a lot of money. So he has devised a new plan for profiting off his four-acre property.
Mr. LEE BONHAM (Donkey Owner): With them bringing this great big development being down in front of me, I may subdivide it, and put two houses in here.
BARON: That would be quite the irony, that after all your work trying to preserve - the ability to have animals here…
Mr. BONHAM: Turn around and have to build houses on it to get anywhere with it.
Mr. BONHAM: That's exactly what I thought.
BARON: As for Gambler, he now lives more than an hour's drive from Golden Valley in the mountains where it's still rural, where there's no one around to complain.
BARON: For NPR News, I'm David Baron.
(Soundbite of donkey braying)