2014-08-29 / Front Page

Range committee not sure about aim

By Duke Harrington
Contributing writer

Tammy Walter, president of the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, looks on as club member William Faulkner of Scarborough takes a few test shots from a 9-mm handgun at the club’s Sawyer Road firing range on Tuesday. (Duke Harrington Tammy Walter, president of the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, looks on as club member William Faulkner of Scarborough takes a few test shots from a 9-mm handgun at the club’s Sawyer Road firing range on Tuesday. (Duke Harrington CAPE ELIZABETH — An attempt by Cape Elizabeth to impose municipal licensing requirements on a 57-year-old gun club has hit a snag, with a newly created regulatory committee admitting it’s not entirely sure what it’s being asked to do.

Based on confusion over how to interpret a new Shooting Range Ordinance, Town Councilor Caitlin Jordan said she will ask her peers to take it back to workshop, with an eye to possible amendments and clarification of the language.

In September 2013, the council hired Kenneth Cole of Portland law firm Jenson Baird Gardner & Henry to broker a compromise between the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, located at 1250 Sawyer Road, and its neighbors in the Cross Hill subdivision. First developed in the 1990s, Cross Hill has been an increasing source of finger pointing at the club, especially after a 2009 report of bullets found lodged in at least two houses. Police Chief Neil Williams said his officers were never able to prove the bullets came from the firing range. Still, questions of safety and complaints about noise have dogged the club ever since.

Cole’s solution was the Shooting Range Ordinance, which he authored. Unanimously adopted by the council March 10, it establishes a five-person committee tasked with overseeing a new registration process for shooting ranges and investigating complaints about those facilities, once licensed.

Jordan is council representatives to the Firing Range Committee and Councilor Jamie Wagner is chairman. Other members, appointed by the council, include gun club member Mark Mayone, Cross Hill resident Cathy Kline and South Portland police officer Benjamin Macisso, a certified firearms instructor.

Jordan said the committee has become bogged down in its efforts to register the Spurwink Club, largely due to confusion over what precisely it needs to have in hand in order to recommend issuance of a license by the full council.

“Did we even know what we were asking for when we adopted this?” she asked at an Aug. 22 committee meeting. “We as a town council need to have a better idea of what the heck we’re asking for in this ordinance, because what we’ve created is nothing that is helpful to this committee.”

“I don’t disagree with that,” Wagner said.

Councilors Jim Walsh and Kathy Ray, among 10 audience members at Friday’s meeting, also did not disagree with Jordan’s assessment.

Wagner and Jordan said they plan to make an informal request at the Monday, Sept. 8 council meeting for a workshop on the ordinance. More formally at that session, they will ask their peers to grant an exception to the Shooting Range Ordinance that would allow the club to begin construction on safety improvements before gaining final approval for an operating license.

The goal, said Wagner, is to allow the club to hit a narrow construction window available before winter weather sets in. As written, the ordinance bars Code Enforcement Officer Ben McDougal from issuing a permit for “any grading, building or improvement” before the range secures its new license.

Also complicating matters is the fact that while the gun club did meet a July 10 deadline to submit to the new licensing process, it nerfed on submission of a site plan. It also has yet to begin what the ordinance deems “reasonable efforts” to ensure 100 percent shot containment at its range, although it has made 11 separate safety improvements since 2012. The club did, however, meet the July deadline to erect warning signs around the property’s perimeter.

At the Sept. 8 council meting, Wagner also will ask the council to grant an extension on the deadline for a site plan.

“That’s a good thing, since we’ve already given one anyhow,” said Jordan, noting that the committee has not moved to reject the gun club’s application.

“So, we’ll back date it,” Wagner said.

Complicating the gun club’s ability complete a site plan, according to Mayone, are recent complaints from Cross Hill residents, which temporarily scuttled a $28,000 improvement grant given by Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. That grant was to have been used to start construction on a series of baffles, costing “at least $100,000,” to be erected over the range’s firing line. Referred to as a “no-blue-sky” system, the baffles would prevent shooters from being able to see or shoot over their intended targets.

In response to those complaints, IF&W now wants to conduct a new site walk of the shooting range, Mayone said. Originally expected to occur this month, that inspection is now scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 11. The committee also has asked for a wetlands study, although no such requirement appears in the ordinance. Still, the club has hired someone to do that work, which was due to be finished this week.

Additionally, the committee has asked for a sound study, ostensibly to establish a baseline for noise emanating from the shooting range. Mayone said the club has contracted a sound engineer and a study is slated for mid-September, depending on the weather. However, Mayone said that report will only measure how sound travels overland from the club, not the actual decibel level of noise at the property line.

The club wants to get started on construction of safety upgrades “as soon as possible,” Mayone said. But it is hesitant to submit a complete plan of those improvements, to be carved in stone by the licensing committee, until after all reports and studies requested by it have been submitted, and until state inspections are complete.

“Once we do this, it’s done — that’s the design that’s going to be there for decades,” he said.

Adding to the list of unsettled questions is committee confusion over what it wants for reports. Wagner’s motion to ask for an exception allowing initial construction was approved unanimously by the committee, but it hinges on submission of a safety report. Jordan pointed out that while the ordinance calls on adherence to best management practices for shot containment, as described by the National Rifle Association, it requires no such safety plan.

Still, in response, gun club President Tammy Walter approved release Friday of an evaluation of the Spurwink range completed in August 2012. That two-page report, drafted by South Portland resident Quirino Lucarelli, an NRA-certified range advisor, offers no great revelations. Although Mayone declined to release the report during his tenure as gun club president before Walter’s election in February — out of fear, he said, that the Cross Hill residents might find a way to use it against the club — its primary recommendation is for the “no-blue-sky” system, to which the club is already committed, pending funding.

It also suggests increasing the height of range sidewalls from six to 20 feet, and ensuring that earthen backstops are free of rocks, to “help avoid deflection of bullets.”

Whether that two-year-old evaluation will fulfill Wagner’s call for a safety report remains to be seen. Also up in the air is whether the sound evaluation contracted by the club will suffice, especially given that how sound travels from the range will necessarily change the moment it starts moving dirt and erecting new walls and range baffles.

Meanwhile, Kline said what the committee really needs is a report on current sound levels emanating from the firing range. Cole called on such a report at a previous committee meeting, she said, but Chief Williams, an ex-officio member of the committee, claims any such a report is irrelevant.

Citing statements made by Cole at a March 10 public hearing, Williams noted that while the ordinance allows the committee to set a 65-decibel limit at the property line of any new firing range, the Spurwink club is exempt under state law governing noise limits on existing gun clubs.

“I specifically asked him that question to get it on the record, because I knew it would come back on us,” said Williams, of his department. “So, it doesn’t matter if the dBA is 65 decibels or 100, if I get a complaint, I’m going to say, I’m sorry, they’re grandfathered.”

That led the committee even further into the briar patch of what it could and could not require in licensing the gun club, which brought Jordan back to her original complaint.

“I don’t think the club should have to jump through all of our hoops because we’re trying to figure out what we’re doing,” she said.

Meanwhile, former town councilor Sara Lennon closed the Aug. 22 session by saying the town ought to pay for any reports it wants, not the gun club.

“Allocate some money to help them run their tests,” she said. “It’s in everybody’s best interests. Why should they have to shoulder the whole thing, especially if it’s a test that’s in some debate?

“I’d also suggest you have a lawyer there [at the Sept. 8 meeting] to answer the many, many questions you have,” she said. “Because, you guys are just kind of winging it.”

Even so, Walter said Tuesday that she is satisfied with the committee’s work, and with the efforts undertaken done by the town council.

“They’ve been doing their best in what has been very difficult circumstances, with the neighbors essentially set on trying to shut us down,” she said.

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