I write this as a word of caution, so that you may avoid the same mistake I made. I was born on farm land in west Texas, raised properly with an abundance of opportunities to safely and productively shoot firearms. My family moved around the country to follow my father’s job, and we enjoyed firearms even in commie states such as Illinois (still have my FOID card as a reminder of our brethren fighting the good fight).
I’ve shot competitively in both military and civilian shooting events, as a team and individual. I have my CHL/LTC in three different states, and carry whenever possible. I imagine my perspective on firearms mirrors that of many TTAG readers.
I moved to Taylor County, Texas a couple years back. I purchased a 15 acre lot about 20 miles southwest of Abilene. It’s way out in the country along a county road with cedar trees so thick you can’t see but one or two houses from the road. At the time of sale, closing on the second mortgage of my life, I didn’t give a proper read through the title policy. It clearly references deed restrictions (DR), though it doesn’t provide a full copy of the restrictions themselves. A visit to the Taylor County Clerk’s office shows that those DR include a clause:
5. Nuisances and Firearms: No noxious or offensive activity shall be carried on upon any of the property nor shall anything be done thereon which may be or may become an annoyance or nuisance to the neighborhood. Use of firearms on any tract is strictly prohibited.
Oblivious to any applicable DR, and of the mindset that 15 acres in rural west Texas is plenty to safely enjoy some target practice, I shot as a matter of training, family entertainment, and sustenance (deer). I’ll save you the sob story of how my neighbor initiated a harassment campaign at my place of employment, but it wasn’t pretty.
Thankfully, my chain of command was understanding and have all had “that neighbor” next to them. I attempted to reach an agreement with my neighbor, offering multiple times to only shoot when he and his wife were out of town, or essentially ask their “permission” before I shot. They refused my offers, citing the DR as justification to order me to completely cease shooting.
There are 30 total unique properties out here in this neighborhood. All of them but my neighbor routinely shoot for target practice, pest control, or hunting. In late 2015, my neighbor filed suit against my wife and I for the use of firearms, to the dismay of the rest of the neighborhood.
The legal battle consisted of seven months, four pre-trial hearings, hundreds of hours of research and work by myself and my wife, a trial by judge, and $15,000 in attorney fees. Most of the neighborhood testified that they’ve shot routinely for years, overwhelmingly abandoning the DR.
Tracking everyone down to testify, out in the country where gathering names and numbers for 30 families is a gigantic pain, took a lot of work. There are 18 total clauses in the DR, prohibiting chickens, specifying the type of structures that can be built, etc. 100% of the DR clauses are violated in whole or in part by at least one neighbor; every neighbor (including the plaintiff) is in violation of at least one clause.
Below are some lessons I’ve learned:
1. Before committing to a property purchase, take that address to the county clerk’s office and research deed restrictions. Review them carefully, and if in doubt, take them to a title or civil litigation attorney for clarification.
2. The Clerk’s office also has public records of all types: Warranty Deeds (showing who actually owns what lots), overview charts showing the layout of each neighborhood (plats), surveys showing the defined boundaries of each lot, etc. Viewing these documents is usually free; printing them cost me $1/page, or much more if I wanted a large-print plat or certified copy.
3. Once you narrow down the properties/houses you like, walk up to the neighbors’ houses that surround it. Talk to them, see how they interact. If I’d done so, I would have realized that 28/30 owners out here are red-blooded Americans and enjoy the country. That 29th owner (I’m the 30th) is a complete dick, and unfortunately I moved in right next to him.
4. Document, document, document! My job has taught me to take notes as soon as an issue arises, because you’re likely to see it again. I started logging every round fired, every interaction with my neighbor, and other details as soon as he initiated his harassment campaign in 2014. Some of those notes, especially my shooting log, were helpful while on the witness stand; I could reference them to demonstrate how much of an effort I’ve made in mitigating noise, such as investing substantial resources into suppressors and selecting subsonic ammo whenever practical. I also had physical evidence of my attempt to reach an agreement with the neighbors, showing the judge that I had tried my best in resolving this outside of court.
5. Once you move in, get to know your neighbors. In rural areas, if an emergency arises (floods, tornado, wildfire, etc.), we don’t have a robust alert system. By knowing the neighbors and having their phone numbers ready, we could raise the alarm rather quickly. In situations such as this lawsuit, already knowing who to contact for a history of the neighborhood, or to discuss issues with, is essential.
6. If you need to lawyer up, then lawyer up like a boss. We initially hired someone we knew, whose background is in criminal law. That cost us some opportunities, such as filing paperwork that could have forced the plaintiff to pay our legal fees if we won. We eventually hired a civil litigation attorney that understood property law quite well; he kicked ass. If we had gone big from the beginning, we could have walked away with $0 in legal fees.
The big picture may seem quite clear: A family sits on 15 rural acres, safely enjoys some target practice and deer hunting, and a neighbor is being a dick. However, civil litigation gets murky quickly. During our trial, the judge challenged both attorneys on the issues of what constitutes abandonment, what constitutes the plaintiff’s waiver of his right to enforce the DR, etc. I admit I was worried for a bit, thinking that the details of the case may prevail against us.
But we freaking won. The first round I fired after the judge’s decision was with my Ruger Scout Rifle (proudly unsuppressed for that occasion). I saved that .308 empty and mounted it in a frame in the garage. That round cost me $15,000, I’m not gonna lose it.
I urge you to avoid this issue entirely, to do your homework on property deeds. County judges in west Texas may side with you, but holy crap it’s a painful process.