CHEYENNE – When small business owner Krista Gallarado and her husband moved into Lunar View Estates in February, they never expected to be met with nearly a year of backlash from neighbors.
The family moved outside the city limits to the community after experiencing a traumatizing theft near their home two months prior. The thief cut through their chain link fence, stole their vehicle and work trailer, drove through the yard and made off with thousands of dollars of tools.
This was the catalyst for wanting a larger property with access to a barn or garage, privacy and a sense of safety. Although Gallardo said some of those desires were met, she still encountered racism, harassment and countless complaints in the wake of moving.
The neighborhood divide grew so significantly, it had to be resolved by the Laramie County Commissioners on Tuesday afternoon.
Eight administrative appeal applications, eventually resolved into one, were brought forward to the commissioners asking for the approval of Big Bird’s Landscaping site plan to be reversed. The site plan revolved around a pole barn the family business built after starting renovations on their home, which many testified did not have the right permit and was not conducive to neighborhood aesthetics, values or covenants.
“It only takes one commercial building of this nature to alter the appearance of this subdivision,” one resident said.
But Gallardo said the intention of the pole barn was not meant to be commercial, nor cause dispute. She said she wanted a larger storage space for work vehicles, equipment and personal items after needing more than the detached garage.
The company they hired to construct the barn applied for the permit originally as residential because they planned on using it as storage. No business would take place except to park cars, home trees and other items. And if it was used for business purposes, under the zoning of the agricultural and residential district in their block, commercial nurseries and landscaping businesses have usage rights.
Once construction began, the business owner said the complaints started coming in. County officials visited the property at least four times to confirm the uses of the building. They recommended after a few months the permit change to a commercial site for safe measure, which was approved.
“They said because you want to put work vehicles inside this building and because you have admitted that you do have a few people that come out to pick up work vehicles on your behalf,” she said, “we are going to advise you to permit for a commercial permit.”
This allowed her barn to go beyond personal use and for employees to pick-up work vehicles, store any equipment for landscaping necessary and follow land use regulations. She explained this is the consistent struggle for small business owners who don’t work out of their homes, but need a reliable storage area.
And although she was happy to work with the county on a new label, she said she knew neighbors would be frustrated. For months complaints weren’t going to just the county office, she said there were cases of harassment and a lack of privacy.
One of the most disheartening instances she said was when a neighbor approached an employee on the property and asked if there were going to be “illegals” housed in the pole barn. The landscaper is originally from Mexico, and Gallardo’s husband has dual citizenship as well.
“It really blew me away that such a question would be asked,” she said, “and I don’t know how else to take that other than as a racist remark. I don’t see how there’s any sort of form of miscommunication when someone says that. The implication is very negative.”
During her testimony to the commissioners, she said this led to a difficult conversation with her children explaining what it meant.
Other negative instances included a letter of disapproval passed between neighbors, invasive questions, neighbors watching the employees on the property, as well as hostile calls to the pole barn contractors business line.
She said she couldn’t see these instigations as anything other than racist attacks because of the singling out. She said other properties in neighborhood included large warehouses and shops and small business fronts that would be violations of the covenants.
Commissioners agreed the enforcement of the covenants seemed arbitrary.
Residents asked the county officials to reverse the approval based on the Gallardo’s breaking the covenant with having a commercial property, as well as its possible traffic and visual disturbances. Bruce Asay, one of the appeal applicants, also said the structure depreciated the value of the community and the commissioners had a duty to protect the original residents. He said any purchaser of a lot knows the covenants are in place, run with the land and enhance the worth of the properties by maintaining them.
“We believe, and certainly my position, that if the county takes action to deprecate and diminish the value of property that we think is protected by covenants, and even by regulations,” he said, “that by diminishing the value of the property, there’s an inverse condemnation.”
But County Commissioner Gunnar Malm pointed out there were other properties not maintaining the covenants. Asay said this was true, with some residents even owning cows, but it did not impact the other neighbors around and did not require enforcement.
“I don’t believe that an inconsistency should be used to justify a clear violation of the covenant,” he said.
He was not alone in this stance. Ellen Thompson, another appellant, said she had no issue with hardworking people needing to use their home as a working space, but not at the expense of others in terms of traffic and safety.
“When you’ve lived there all your adult life, you get pretty deep rooted,” she testified. “And I feel very possessive about that. Just because the covenants are old and not enforced to the letter, I don’t believe the new resident has the right to totally dismiss them completely.”
Gallardo said although she knew of the covenants, based on research and visual evidence of others, she did not think they were enforced. She was also told there was no acting body within the neighborhood to uphold them, as there is no Homeowners Association or board.
She also said she realized through the process, although there were many against the family’s presence, it was not the majority. Her next door neighbor even came forward to speak kindly and said she was advised the property values increased, and a former neighbor from their past home advocated at the meeting as well.
“I just wanted to come up and say they were always fantastic neighbors,” Dominic Davis said. “They were very respectful and their business was actually a benefit to our neighborhood. During snowstorms they often plowed the streets, kind of cleared us out and stuff like that. They’re great people.”
And in the end, with testimony heard for nearly an hour from both sides, the commissioners did not concur. Not only did they say they did not enforce private covenants between neighbors, but there was no way to specify which ones should and should not be punished.
“They’re only as enforceable and as strong as the neighborhood is, which we can litigate and go back and forth about what in these covenants has been not upheld by other members and other people in the neighborhood,” said Malm. “But again, I think that’s outside of the scope of my job here as a commissioner and the job of the county in applying land use regulations.”
He was supported in this perspective, with some commissioners even defending the property and business. County Commissioner Linda Heath said she had driven by the property and it seemed as though it was kept well and necessary as a small business owner.
“Having been on the end of equipment stolen from the job site, I can understand their desire to have that equipment at their home where they’ve got a better control on who enters the property,” she said.
All five commissioners voted to reaffirm the decision of the planning director and reject the appeals process. Although the neighbors can privately litigate and take on the covenants, it will not take place in the county meetings.
“It makes us feel more secure as a family,” Gallardo said. “It wasn’t clear which issue was the issue, if it was the business or if it was the building.”