Katherine Jones, Associated Press
Tammy Emmons is one of only two people who enforce county codes in Ada County, Idaho.

BOISE — Tammy Emmons patrols the limbo zone between rural and urban life.

She's one of only two people who enforce county codes across 400 square miles of unincorporated Ada County, putting some 3,000 miles on her car each month.

As sagebrush desert gives way to growing communities, some planned and some less so, neighbors are being forced to live closer together.

People here are used to the freedom rural life brings. But as the population spreads, neighbors are more likely to notice — and complain about — things like gravel pits and chicken coops.

At any one time, Emmons is working on about 90 active cases, 99 percent of them driven by citizen complaints. Most of the time, her job is about conversation. She spends her days talking, first to the neighbors who disagree on everything from the heights of hedges to the presence of junked cars in front yards.

Then, she tries to get the neighbors to talk to one another.

"Sometimes they're nervous, so they call me as a 'first resort,"' Emmons said. "Situations are adversarial until people can sit and talk. In most cases, there are no bad guys."

Harlin Baldwin, a retiree from the Department of Veterans Affairs, loves the Boise State Broncos and his rural lifestyle outside Meridian. He has views of fields, mountains and horses from his driveway door. Unfortunately, he also has a view of a gravel parking lot when a neighbor moved in next door and opened a landscaping business.

Early in the morning, four or five diesel trucks would warm up there, making noise and spewing exhaust.

"I'm all for private entrepreneurs, but what really bothered me was that someone could come in and set up a business overnight," Baldwin said. "I worked for the government for 30 years. We have laws and rules, and you have to abide by them."

Baldwin complained to the county, and Emmons investigated.

As it turns out, Baldwin's neighbor didn't know he was doing anything wrong. He got some misinformation from the real-estate agent who sold him the land. The agent described the non-business-zoned land as having "commercial/industrial potential," Emmons said. "Was the Realtor lying? No. Was he stretching the truth? Yes."

Emmons persuaded the neighbors to meet. Baldwin's neighbor has since taken steps to relocate his landscape business to a more remote stretch of land. The two men now attend zoning meetings. They converse afterward and have even been known to have dinner together.

"We have a gentleman's agreement, and it's all because of this young lady right here," Baldwin said, gesturing toward Emmons in his sunny driveway beside the now-peaceful gravel lot.

Emmons brings more than two decades of law enforcement experience to her present job. She has the battle scars to prove it — like a knee that had to be replaced after a run-in with an irate logger in Northern California.

Though her own past happens to be in law enforcement, code enforcement specialists are not police officers. She dresses a lot like the citizens she visits, in work boots, and if someone doesn't want her on their land, they can ask her to leave.

She does not carry a weapon. When a citizen submits a complaint to the county, Emmons always takes a "drive-by" first to check out the scene before she knocks on any doors or tries to talk to anyone.

If she's visiting someone known to be violent, or if a situation looks dicey to her in any way, she can bring along a sheriff's deputy. In her nearly three years on the job, she hasn't felt threatened, she said.

Unlike code enforcers within Boise city limits, county code enforcers can't issue citations. They can send offenders a series of three letters or notices. If they don't get a response, a specialist can refer code violators to county prosecutors, who send out another notice. After that, if there's no response, cases go to court. The letters, said Rich Wright, county spokesman, really only come into play if a resident is unresponsive.

Most people are responsive, Emmons said. "This is an education job. It's about telling people what they need to know to make things work."

Emmons said that in a lot of cases, she and other county representatives end up in partnerships with citizens.

After she and sheriff's deputies determined that a trailer with a junk-filled yard in the Golden Dawn subdivision east of Boise was not a meth lab as neighbors had feared but the home of a disabled veteran, the deputies hauled away some of the junk themselves, then enlisted the Sheriff's Inmate Labor Detail to clean up the rest.

Emmons hasn't had to testify in court on a code enforcement violation yet and estimates only about 25 percent of complaints end up being sent on to prosecutors.

This is not to say that every case is easy.

One case, for example, involves a resident keeping 67 cars on a one-acre lot. Because of disputes about land ownership, changes in prosecutors and other issues, the case has gone on for 14 years.

Then there are the seasonal fireworks and produce stands that pop up around the county during the summer. If they violate codes, by the time Emmons has sent three letters, the businesses have packed up and moved on anyway.

Emmons said that more citizens she works with lately are trying to counter a rough economy by setting up home businesses in neighborhoods that aren't zoned for them.

She recently worked with one person who set up an inflatable trampoline business and another who opened an industrial yard, complete with cement trucks and portable toilets on their properties. In both cases, the residents had to shut down their operations after neighbors complained.

Emmons has had to adapt to new cultural norms, too. She recalled a visit to a family of Bosnian refugees who were keeping a dairy cow and a number of chickens in their suburban yard.

"For them, this was normal," she said.

She inadvertently offended the father of the family, violating etiquette by speaking to the mother first. But as usual in her line of work, conversation was eventually the solution.

Emmons invited the man to her office. They talked; she apologized for the breach of etiquette. They worked out a system in which the family could keep some chickens through one of the children's involvement in Future Farmers of America. Eventually, the family invited Emmons to their home.

"I got a whole new respect for what an invitation really means," she said. "And what good would it have done to hang a citation on that man's door?"