Good Neighbor Guidebook, edited by N.S. Grief and E.J. Johnson

Review by Ed Quillen

Rural West – December 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Good Neighbor Guidebook for Colorado Necessary Information and Good Advice For Living in and Enjoying Today’s Colorado
Edited by Nancy S. Greif and Erin J. Johnson
Published in 2000 by Johnson Books
ISBN 1-55566-262-5

Code of the West – Chaffee County, Colorado
Published in 2000 by Chaffee County
Free at county offices

THERE ARE PEOPLE who figure the only way to keep rural Colorado rural, rather than suburban, is to pray hard for a general economic crash, so that there won’t be hordes of immigrant buyers for 20-acre parcels at $10,000 an acre.

Others figure that it’s dangerous to wish for something, because you might get it. Thus the more prudent course is to find a way to acculturate the new arrivals: If they’re going to come anyway, be sure they know that their dog could get shot if it chases the neighbor’s cattle and that their unsecured trash could attract ravenous bears. They shouldn’t expect a sheriff’s deputy or fire truck to arrive within moments after a telephone call, and indeed, there may be lengthy intervals when the phones aren’t working, as well as places where there are no phones.

With that in mind, Chaffee County has followed other rural Colorado counties in producing a “Code of the West.” The romantic title comes from Zane Grey, but the contents are quite prosaic:

“It is important for you to know that life in the country is different from life in the city. County governments are not able to provide the same level of service that city governments provide. We are providing you with the following information to help you make an educated and informed decision about purchasing rural land because of those differences.”

What follows in this 16-page pamphlet are mostly warnings: Get legal advice about the access to your property. Residential mail delivery is not available to all areas of the county. Not all wells can be used for watering lawns, landscaping, or livestock.

The Code of the West concludes with a checklist for a “72-hour survival kit” — the idea is to be prepared, so that if there’s a blizzard, there won’t necessarily be an emergency that requires county crews or volunteers to rescue isolated residents who are running out of food or fuel.

The pamphlet is a compendium of useful warnings about the hazards of buying and inhabiting rural property, and it’s worth having around, even if you’re getting city water and sewer, or even if you’re not in Chaffee County.

But Code of the West is necessarily terse. It tells you that “Colorado has an open range law. If you do not want … livestock on your property, you must fence them out. It is not the responsibility of the rancher to keep his/her livestock off your property.”

This could inspire questions, like “Do I have to build a 12-foot-high stone wall if the neighbor’s bull buffalo keeps charging through my garden, or is there only some standard-type fence that I have to build?”

FOR ANSWERS, you could call an attorney, and you may need to anyway. But you’ll save a lot of expensive lawyer time if you first consult The Good Neighbor Guidebook for Colorado.

There you will learn that “A ‘lawful fence’ is defined as a well-constructed, three-barbed-wire fence with substantial posts set approximately 20 feet apart, or any comparably sturdy fence.”

Even if you build such a fence, one that can “turn” normal animals, and some livestock trespasses anyway, it’s not a crime: “Generally, the county sheriff has no jurisdiction to cite a stock owner for trespass and damage by his or her stock. You have to go down to the courthouse and file a civil complaint.”

That’s just a fraction of an entire chapter, written by an attorney and planning consultant, on fencing to keep critters out, be they the neighbor’s goats or some skunks who fancy the underside of your porch.

THE GOOD NEIGHBOR GUIDEBOOK has more than three dozen contributors, all with expertise in their fields, and it covers just about every imaginable issue in the human habitation of the hinterlands of Colorado: water rights, wastewater treatment, weeds, wildfires, pets, mineral estates, leases, liens, county zoning, eminent domain, recreation, public land, conservation easements, assessments, property taxes, Ute nations, building codes, residential rentals …

Perhaps because one of the editors is an attorney, most chapters focus on the legal angles, along with a chapter near the end that recommends talking to your neighbors as one of the best “Tools for Avoiding Lawsuits, Shootouts, and Financial Ruin.”

There are also some delightful exceptions to all the legal matters, such as the observations from “Colorado Red.”

“Every year when I pay my taxes I tell the county that all those ruts and potholes and stuff in the roads are dangerous, and every year they ignore me.”

“I told those new people that their dog might not live long if I catch it chasing my cows one more time.”

“If you build in those trees without clearing some of them, I guarantee a fire will get you sooner or later.”

Because the Guidebook has a multitude of contributors, its style is rather uneven. Some chapters flow smoothly while others are choppy, though all are generally clear and well organized.

It’s not easy reading. It will answer most questions you have about Colorado’s laws and customs outside of city limits, and those matters are of interest to nearly all of us.

I live in town, but I’ll be keeping this one around for reference the next time I need to know about the State Land Board, the noxious-weed law, or any of scores of other topics.

After reading these two books, one large and the other tiny, I begin to wonder why anyone would live outside town, what with the problems one can have with water and roads, let alone cattle, deer, fences, easements, fires, weeds, and a host of other nuisances and threats.

So I hope these books get read widely, because that just might prevent a few subdivisions. And if not, there’s the consolation that people who know what they’re getting into, and are willing to accept the challenges and responsibilities of rural life — those people ought to make pretty good rural neighbors.

— Ed Quillen