2015-08-14 / Front Page

Gun Club licensing soon up for consideration

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — The $1 million cost to implement full shot containment at the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, given by a shooting range safety evaluator at the Aug. 10 meeting of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council, puts in doubt an upcoming license vote, given that the club has less than $20,000 on hand.

On July 23, the town ordered suspension of live fire at the club’s Sawyer Road shooting range, which has been the target of increasing ire in recent years from residents of the nearby Cross Hill subdivision. The order came one day after a draft report was submitted by Rick LaRosa of Keenesaw, Georgia, whose architectural and engineering firm, R Design Works, has reviewed more than 50 firing lines in 20 states over the past nine years.

As part of a new licensing process created last year as a compromise measure with the Cross Hill residents, the town council is scheduled to vote Monday, Sept. 14 on whether to approve continued operation of the Spurwink firing range. The town’s new firing range committee, created by passage of a shooting range ordinance in March 2014, voted 4-1 on June 8 to recommend the council grant an operating license to the 61-year-old gun club. However, the committee chairman, Town Councilor Caitlin Jordan, has said the vote was taken before receipt of the LaRosa report.

The recommendation was made, Jordan said, based on a safety report submitted by the gun club as part of its license application.That two-page review, prepared in August 2012 by South Portland resident Quirino Lucarelli, an NRA-certified range advisor, offered some suggestions for safety enhancements, but otherwise rose no red flags.

However, because the report was commissioned by the gun club, the town council requested a new, independent study. Town Manager Michael McGovern has said he got no response to his initial advertisement in January for a new range evaluator and, by the time he had uncovered LaRosa, based on a recommendation from the National Rifle Association, an ordinance-driven deadline for the committee recommendation was rapidly approaching and, in fact, had passed by the time LaRosa turned in his effort.

In contrast to Lucarelli’s work, LaRosa’s 19-page report found significant deficiencies in the Spurwink firing range, both in its current configuration and in a three-year phased upgrade proposed by the club.

“The design that they were proposing was not as recommended by the NRA,” LaRosa said at the Aug. 10 council meeting. “The plan that they have now would not be acceptable for containment.”

Short of building a roof over the firing range, “acceptable containment,” LaRosa said, would include a series of baffles spaced along each firing line such that a shooter could not point a weapon at any angle and get a bullet off the range. That’s important, LaRosa said, because in its current layout, a club member could fire a bullet out of the open-air site and potentially into the Cross Hill subdivision by aiming, intentionally or otherwise, a mere five degrees over his intended target.

A 45-degree angle would be preferable, LaRosa said, meaning the ridge at the far end of the range — built in a gully between Sawyer Road and land where the Cross Hill subdivision started to go in during the 1990s — should be at least 100 feet higher than the firing line. Currently, the difference is “about 60 or 70 feet,” he said.

LaRosa’s conclusion apparently came as a surprise not only to the gun club, which has spent three years and $60,000 on its upgrade plan, but to the NRA.

“When we wrote the report and recommended that range fire be suspended, one of the first calls I got was from the NRA, who said, ‘Hey, you know we’re not in the closinggun range business, right?’” LaRosa recalled.

“But I said I’m not beholden to anybody,” LeRosa said. “I did this without the NRA’s input or anybody else’s. I’m not on anybody’s side. I’m on the side of safety.”

When quizzed by the council, LaRosa said any of “five or six, or so,” firms nationwide that design gun ranges, including his own, could have a plan drafted for the Spurwink site in “a couple of weeks,” at a cost of “$15,000 to $20,000.”

That would meet the deadline for the council vote on Sept. 14. However, LaRosa said it would take at least a month to build a system of full shot containment on just Spurwink’s shortest, 25-meter firing line. That work, he said, would cost “about $200,000.”

“Basically, the club’s proposal was such that it did not address fully the need for containment,” LaRosa said of the difference between his estimate and plans presented by the gun club, which has been criticized by neighbors for crafting a “homemade” solution.

“They are needing to get together with a designer to have the rest of their plan completed,” LaRosa said. “Their approach was much slower and longer than I felt was safe. But no matter how long it would have taken to complete that plan, it would not have been a successful plan.”

If a professional range designer is hired, implementing shot containment on all Spurwink ranges, including its longest 100-meter line, might take six months to build, “if you got right on in,” LaRosa said. The total outlay for the club, he noted, would fall “between $750,000 and $1 million.”

That is a far cry from the $90,000 club president Tammy Walter and pubic information officer Mark Mayone have said the club had expected to spend over the next three years.

Although LaRosa said he saw no evidence of a baffling system, known in the industry as “no blue sky,” in Spurwink’s long-range plans, Mayone has repeatedly said the club has been working toward that very concept since launching its modernization effort three years ago. Walter has said the club expects to use old telephone poles as baffles.

However, a lack of funding has been the only thing holding back full and immediate implementation of that work, she said.

Mayone said Spurwink’s 300-plus members do not have the resources to fund improvements on their own.

Of the $60,000 spent to date, $28,000 came from a state grant obtained last year. Last week, the club announced it had been given a $10,000 grant from “The Friends of the NRA.” However, the gun club has so far raised $1,820 on a GoFundMe.com crowdfunding page created in April to meet its original $90,000 goal.

McGovern struck an ominous tone at the Aug. 10 meeting.

“I don’t want to prejudge the council’s decision, but I think if you read the ordinance, you’ll see there needs to be shot containment,” he said.

“That is language that is specifically within the ordinance, that you need to find that the shot is contained within the range,” McGovern told the council. “Clearly, it cannot be operating until you as the licensing authority find that the conditions contained in the ordinance are met.”

Beyond the strictures of the ordinance, LaRosa suggested other changes are in order at the Spurwink range. Given that a bullet fired from the facility can travel up to 3 miles, “some of the higher powered guns need to be taken off the list,” of guns approved for use by club members, LaRosa said.

Although council chambers was packed for Monday’s meeting, only three audience members rose to the podium at the call for public comment.

“This setback has only made us stronger,” Walter said. “Our intention is and always has been to have a facility that is safe and that all of us can be proud of.”

“I may not agree with some of the points of the range evaluation, but I do believe it will make us stronger going forward,” Mayone agreed.

Meanwhile, Eric Stephanus, a resident of Tiger Lily Lane in the Cross Hill subdivision, thanked the council for hiring LaRosa. The input of a professional firing range evaluator, he said, should help to kill the preeminent talking point of the club, that it was built nearly a half century before the Cross Hill homes.

“Talk of things like who was there first, those things can be discussed ad nauseum,” he said. “We can get away from that now and just look at the facts of what’s safe.

“I hope you make a determination of what’s safe based on the facts,” Stehpanus told the council.

Still, LaRosa observed that proximity to a subdivision should not, of its own accord, shut down the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club.

“I don’t think there’s anything there that can’t be corrected,” he said. “There’s nothing that can’t be overcome.”

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