CRAWFORD, Texas - Along the narrow road meandering between corn fields and cow pastures, something odd has popped up every few hundred feet: "no parking" signs.
Folks who live in the normally tranquil area near President Bush's ranch never dreamed they would want or need a parking ban until August, when war protesters from around the nation pitched tents in shallow ditches about 2 1/2 miles away from the Western White House.
A car makes its way on Prairie Chapel Road which leads to President Bush's ranch, in Crawford, Texas, Friday Oct. 7, 2005, while a sign warns motorists not to park. (AP Photo/Jerry Larson)
After residents complained of noise and traffic congestion with the campsite that drew thousands, McLennan County commissioners recently approved new ordinances banning parking on parts of 14 roads near the ranch - roughly a 5-mile radius - and prohibiting camping in any county ditch.
"Everyone who lives around here is glad things are back to normal," said Dusty Harrison, who lives about 300 yards from the protesters' site. "With the ban on camping and parking, I believe it will put a stop to it."
But don't count on it, protesters say.
Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, Calif., whose 24-year-old son Casey was killed in Iraq last year, started the vigil Aug. 6 to coincide with Bush's monthlong working vacation at his ranch. She and other demonstrators have vowed to return whenever the president does.
"We're going to dog him every step of the way until he brings the troops home from Iraq," Carl Rising-Moore of Indianapolis, a member of Veterans for Peace, said Saturday. "When George W. Bush goes to Crawford, Texas, we will be there."
Sheehan's 26-day protest was lengthier, more publicized and closer to the ranch than previous demonstrations. Other groups obtained a city protest permit and gathered for a few hours in a Crawford park about seven miles from Bush's ranch, which is outside city limits.
Much like in Crawford, local authorities have created free-speech or protest zones far away from Bush when he makes an appearance, said Jim Harrington, one of Sheehan's attorneys.
Harrington represents a dozen protesters suing the city of Austin after police in 2001 blocked them from marching into an area with Bush supporters when he spoke at a museum opening.
Harrington said McLennan County's new parking ordinance also seems unconstitutional because, unlike the countywide camping ban, it applies only to an area around the ranch but was not designed to enhance the president's security. He said he is considering suing the county.
"The idea of getting down close to the ranch is so Bush has to deal with them, and that's what the First Amendment is all about: ... to get in the face of elected leaders," said Harrington, the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
The county already had an ordinance - initiated by the Secret Service after Bush became president - prohibiting cars from stopping on the road within about a quarter-mile of the ranch. When Bush is there, authorities set up checkpoints about half a mile from the ranch, allowing only residents to drive through.
County Commissioner Ray Meadows, whose precinct includes the Crawford area, said neither the White House nor Secret Service has asked the county to expand the no-parking zone around the ranch or to ban camping.
The ordinances aim to prevent another traffic nightmare that inconvenienced residents and threatened the safety of hundreds of protesters milling along the road, Meadows said - not to limit free speech.
"They can get bused out there and march, but they can't stay and camp," Meadows said.
Any parking ban violators face up to a $50 fine for the first offense, $200 fine for the second offense and $500 fine and/or 60 days in the county jail for subsequent offenses. Those who violate the camping ordinance, which also bans portable toilets on public right-of-way areas, could be charged with littering or criminal trespassing.
But the threat of arrest historically hasn't deterred demonstrators.
In fact, Sheehan and hundreds of other protesters were arrested after failing to heed police warnings not to sit on a walkway outside the White House on Sept. 26, after a massive weekend anti-war rally.
Protesters still have an alternative: camping on private property near Bush's ranch.
About two weeks after Sheehan set up camp, a sympathetic landowner allowed the group to use his 1-acre lot about a mile away from the ranch. The group erected a large tent for concerts and speakers but didn't allow cars there, so protesters still parked in ditches. Many anti-war demonstrators continued camping at the first site.
Veterans for Peace and other groups say that if they cannot find private land for future protests, they will return to the ditches.
"If it goes to civil disobedience, so be it," Rising-Moore said. "We don't want to go to jail, but we have people prepared to take this all the way."
© Copyright 2005 Associated Press