One man’s dream would bring alligators to the Sierra Nevada desert
Anthony Bator stands on his property, dreaming. In his mind’s eye, he does not see ramshackle high-desert living quarters in Warm Springs Valley, about 15 miles north of Sparks. No, he sees a paradise replete with a thriving ranch, humid heat and voracious livestock.
While most people dream of owning their own home, the 6-foot-4-inch Bator fantasizes about operating an alligator farm.
“We live in the desert, alligators don’t,” is no doubt the first thought to pop into skeptical minds. Alligators don’t live in arid, sometimes cold environments—not for long, anyway. But Bator came up with a novel idea to get over those climactic hurdles: He would build his farm in a place with geothermal (ground-heated) water to help keep power bills down.
Bator avows that alligator cultivation is lucrative. The critters grow like wildfire, and they’ll eat almost anything. Hides and meat go for big bucks in big-city restaurants and luggage stores.
So, setting aside the logistics of safety and operation of a gator farm, there isn’t any reason he couldn’t make a go of it. But Bator claims that people and agencies within Washoe County wish to keep him from realizing this odd but viable vision. In fact, county officials recently sent him a “notice of violation” that could kill or delay his project.
“It is my absolute firm belief that the Washoe County government is in what would be considered to be excessive abuse of its police powers,” Bator says.
Washoe County officials don’t agree. They don’t feel they’ve asked the potential reptile farmer to do anything they wouldn’t ask a more traditional business to do; in fact, some officials even seem to like the mildly eccentric Bator.
Bob Webb, planning manager for the Washoe County Department of Community Development, says all the department is trying to do is enforce the building and land use laws.
“More power to him,” says Webb of Bator. “This alligator farm is a side issue, in my opinion. We are simply concerned with obvious violations of the upkeep of his property.”
Webb denies Bator’s assertions that there is a conspiracy against him or that Community Development is acting outside its jurisdiction, another charge that Bator makes. He also commends Bator’s arguments and challenges to the codes, but he remains firm that the law’s the law.
“I’ve encouraged him to come in and talk to us, but so far he hasn’t,” Webb says.
Rumors have it that Bator has had alligators in weird, squat huts out there on the desert for years. Walking past the 10 circular buildings, which will potentially house the alligators, toward his mobile home, it seems the buildings have never been put to use. In fact, three well-fed horses are the only evidence of past ranching activity. There are remnants of materials used to construct the dwellings, a couple RVs, a refrigerator tied to the ground with a bright yellow rope, a few cars and vans but no alligators.
“I could bring 2,000 alligators out here tomorrow,” Bator says, squinting against the clear sunlight, “but because of the allegations of violation that Washoe County has brought against me in the past—I’ve been financially devastated.”
Bator moved to Nevada from New York in 1983. He spent years searching for the right place. He had four criteria: an adequate water supply, warm water, farmable land and a certain comfort level.
“I found that in this valley,” he says. “I couldn’t find a nicer place. You don’t get this kind of feeling from just anywhere.”
He has a point. Even in a clear-sky January, the surrounding mountains shelter Bator’s mile-high 40-acre farm and neighboring ranches like something out of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. Bator bought the property in 1987. Shortly after that, he applied for and got permits from the Nevada Department of Wildlife to import the gators. It was during this process, he says, when his problems with the county began.
Bator says an official from the Planning Department approached him, telling him he needed a special-use permit to operate this type of farm. Bator disagreed. He said that it was his property, his money and his right as a citizen to conduct his business without undue government interference. After a few rounds of notices from the county and appeals from Bator, he took the case to court.
“One county official told me that if I continued building, I would be ‘swatted and taken out,’ “ Bator alleges. “First they came at me through the Planning Department; then they came after me with the Health Department.”
Bator won—for the most part. The courts determined that his property was zoned for agricultural use, and raising alligators was an agricultural use. However, it was stipulated that he did need a special-use permit. Bator grudgingly applied for and received one—with conditions—in 1989.
One condition was that the permit had no “sunset clause,” which meant that the permit went with the land, not just with Bator. He also had to submit plans for his alligator ranch buildings to the Washoe County Building Department. Finally, he had to make beneficial use of his water rights. At this point, though, Bator had no idea when the land would be in operation as a reptile farm. So he had to plant crops to use the water in order to fulfill his part of the agreement. That, he says, cost him thousands of dollars and set his plans back further.
Bator took several years to recover financially from his court battles and added expenses. After submitting and resubmitting plans, he finally got his building permits in 1992 and constructed the housing for the alligators.
The last decade has been relatively quiet for Bator. He worked a few jobs, such as organizing mining investments and installing window blinds. He brought a lawsuit against Washoe County for $21 million, but it was dismissed.
Last December, he moved out to the property with the intent of saving money, getting his operation running and building a home. On Dec. 13, he received a “notice of violation” from the Department of Community Development.
Specifically, Rebecca Tackett, code enforcement officer, stated that his property did not meet zoning standards. The alleged violations include a lack of a main permanent structure, the collection and storage of materials and inoperable vehicles, and too many mobile residential structures.
Bator responded with a letter of his own to Community Development, county commissioners, local media, the FBI and the Attorney General’s Office, claiming a conspiracy of harassment aimed at blocking his pursuit of happiness.
Tackett doesn’t see anything wrong with her actions or the actions of Washoe County.
“I am operating through what is allowed by Washoe County code as well as with the knowledge of my superior and the department,” she says.
County codes are tricky and confusing—even for the experts. Dave Snelgrove, principal planner at Gray & Associates, a local civil engineering firm, says, “Sometimes the codes are cumbersome. In planning, some things are cut and dried, and others have a lot of gray area.”
Cumbersome is an understatement. The Washoe County Development Code fills two big-ring, four-inch-thick binders.
Bator’s property is zoned as General Rural/Residential. For those properties, it states, “No area visible from the street shall be used for outdoor storage of inoperable vehicles … building materials, appliances, containerized trash, or similar materials.”
Later it defines “inoperable vehicles” as ones not registered with the DMV, missing parts, or in such a state of disrepair that they cannot be registered. There were at least three of those on Bator’s property, in addition to the refrigerator, unused and splintering lumber and other discarded materials.
Webb, the planning manager, also contends that the two RVs and two trailers on Bator’s farm are illegal. The law allows for one temporary structure for residential use while a property owner is constructing a home. Bator has the permit to build a home but has three temporary structures. Bator claims the insulated trailers are for the eventual storage of meat for the alligators. Webb suspects that the trailers are being used to manufacture vinyl blinds, which would be in violation of business codes and permits as well as land use ones. Bator emphatically denies the charge.
“I install blinds for a company called Home and Office Blinds,” he says. “The CEO is another man in another state, and he oversees the manufacturing. I have nothing to do with manufacturing.”
Bator will not respond to the allegations of violation. The would-be alligator puncher doesn’t think it is any of Washoe County’s business what he does on his own property, unless it actually endangers the public. He points across the road to a neighbor’s property, where motorcycles and dirt bikes buzz up and over the foothills. He points out that the 15 trucks are trespassing on private property, not BLM land, although it is unfenced. Due to the destruction of vegetation and topsoil, when the wind blows, dust storms choke the air across the valley.
“I’ve got nothing against guys on their bikes, but where the police powers of the state exist, they don’t want to execute it. They want to execute it on sovereign individuals enjoying their property rights.”
Be that as it may, it will likely be a long time before the stubborn Bator acquiesces to county pressure and builds the home the codes require. Still, even after years of battling the county, it is not an impossible dream that there will one day be alligators living in the high desert. Not if Bator has anything to say on the matter.