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Sunday, July 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New attitudes, Old West in Arizona standoff

The Associated Press

BISBEE, Ariz. — Jeff Harris rolled into this mining town in southeastern Arizona in 1981 in a van loaded with chickens.

He settled into a house that faces a dusty hill dotted with ocotillo and century plants where cows and horses graze. "My closest neighbor is a cow," said Harris.

And he likes it that way.

But he and other longtime residents of rural Arizona are finding that throngs of people moving in from across the country often arrive with urban attitudes: They don't want chickens next door. They don't want tractors on the highway. And they certainly don't want their Jacuzzis used as watering troughs.

"It is human nature. They come to a place because they like the small-town atmosphere, but then they want to change it," said state historian Marshall Trimble.

In Harris' case, neighbors complained to the city about his chickens and those of two other Bisbee residents, saying the birds were a nuisance. It is illegal to have more than three animals in Bisbee, a historic town of 6,000 nestled in a canyon filled with a mix of artists, ranchers and retirees.

"My chickens have spawned three criminal prosecutions," said Harris, who was facing up to a $2,500 fine and up to six months in jail because of the 10 chickens he had at the time. "We believe it is a small faction trying to force their will on the majority of long-term residents."

Facing similar charges, resident Bill Elliott said his neighbor called the city 50 times regarding his 17 chickens. The police blotter was filled with chicken complaints. "Rooster Terrorizes Neighborhood" was the headline in the local newspaper.

"They seem to act like we are a major city," Elliott said. "The real truth is we are in the country. You couldn't be more in the country."

City Attorney John MacKinnon said the old law was never meant to target residents like Elliott and Harris who just want fresh eggs and meat. It was created to keep cows from wandering through Bisbee streets.

The law is now being applied only to residents with livestock, he said.

"The language hasn't changed — but the interpretation of the law has," MacKinnon said. Charges against Harris and Elliott were dismissed.

But other city-slicker vs. cowboy conflicts have arisen elsewhere in Arizona.

Drivers complain to the state Department of Public Safety about tractors rolling down highways, slowing passenger traffic, spokesman Frank Valenzuela said.

Farm vehicles in Arizona have long shared the roads with cars. But as much of the open land becomes developed and traffic increases — in addition to frustration — there are safety concerns.

Transportation and farm officials met in January in the agricultural community of Yuma in southwestern Arizona to discuss whether farm equipment should be restricted on Interstate 8, which leads into California.

By April, the groups agreed to allow farmers to move equipment on the freeway if their tractors have flashing lights and reflective tape. But the farmers can't operate their tractors on the roads at rush hour. The equipment also must be used solely for farming.

"If you are just going to run down to the store to get a soda, you can't hop in your tractor to do that," said Liz Foster, the Arizona Farm Bureau's government-relations programs manager.

In the Phoenix suburbs of Mesa and Buckeye, farm equipment often treads on busy roads because housing subdivisions were built next to fields.

There haven't been any serious accidents caused by farm equipment on roads, Valenzuela said. But the potential for accidents increases as the population grows.

Largely driven by affordable housing and mild climate, Arizona is the second-fastest-growing state behind Nevada, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state is expected to double in size by 2030.

Many new housing developments are being built on what was once farmland, leaving stucco subdivisions towering above working farms.

The rural aspects that attracted the newcomers — having neighbors with roosters and livestock and the smells and sounds that accompany them — often end up repelling them, Trimble said.

"Cows do poop," Trimble said. "When you have a whole bunch of them out there, they poop a lot."

Cows also can go wherever they want in much of Arizona. Like many Western states, Arizona has an open-range law that allows cattle to roam freely. But with the population exploding, even in rural areas, the law has become more prone to opposition.

On the outskirts of Bisbee, cows frequently break an old, weak fence that surrounds Betty Lindstrom's 100-acre property.

"Years ago, they drank out of my Jacuzzi and spit in it and did all kinds of stuff in it and broke it," she said.

Under open-range law, property owners are responsible for fencing out cattle; ranchers aren't obligated to restrain their cows. Motorists who hit cows in the road are responsible for the damage.

Lindstrom and other property owners complain they shouldn't have to spend money to keep cows off their land.

But ranchers defend their way of life and say the cost of fencing in their cows would put them out of business. They argue that there are still large expanses of open land in the West where their cows should be able to graze freely.

Although the Old West spirit will never entirely die here, growth is forcing Arizona to change and residents have to adapt, Trimble said.

"Like it or not, people are going to have to change — people like me who are natives," Trimble said.

But for Elliott, a fourth-generation Arizonan who now has 20 chickens, two goats and land filled with fruit trees, letting go of the rural lifestyle won't be easy.

"These guys move here because they wanted to get away from where they were," Elliott said. "And then as soon as they get here, they want to bring what they left."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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