2016-02-05 / Front Page

Town now makes club pay taxes

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Mark Mayone, public information officer for the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, takes aim Feb. 1 on the newly enclosed firing line at the club’s shooting range. As part of a licensing agreement with the town, the once open-air range has been blocked in to prevent bullets from potentially leaving the site and reaching a nearby housing development. (Courtesy photo) Mark Mayone, public information officer for the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, takes aim Feb. 1 on the newly enclosed firing line at the club’s shooting range. As part of a licensing agreement with the town, the once open-air range has been blocked in to prevent bullets from potentially leaving the site and reaching a nearby housing development. (Courtesy photo) CAPE ELIZABETH — In what has already been a roller coaster kind of a year for the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, the sporting group, located at 1250 Sawyer Road in Cape Elizabeth, has been sent into another dive, one it hopes will not prove to be a death plunge.

In a Dec. 9 notice to club President Tammy Walter, Cape Elizabeth Assessor Matthew Sturgis said that as of April 1, it would no longer be exempt from property taxes.

Town assessing records show the club’s 21-acre property, including its clubhouse, but not the newly constructed firing line enclosure, is valued at $251,800. Walter said she’s been told to expect a tax bill — the first in the 60-year history of the club — of at least $4,200.


Standing on the newly enclosed 25-yard firing line at Spurwink Rod & Gun Club are, from left, club Treasurer Peter Darling, Information Officer Mark Mayone, and President Tammy Walter. As part of a licensing agreement with the town, the once open-air range has been blocked in with concrete walls and an overhead baffling system of steel plating, multi-layered wood beams, and rubber barriers, to prevent bullets from potentially leaving the site and reaching a nearby housing development. (Courtesy photo) Standing on the newly enclosed 25-yard firing line at Spurwink Rod & Gun Club are, from left, club Treasurer Peter Darling, Information Officer Mark Mayone, and President Tammy Walter. As part of a licensing agreement with the town, the once open-air range has been blocked in with concrete walls and an overhead baffling system of steel plating, multi-layered wood beams, and rubber barriers, to prevent bullets from potentially leaving the site and reaching a nearby housing development. (Courtesy photo) “That’s really not something we can afford,” Walter said in a Jan. 30 interview, citing the recent cancellation of the club’s insurance policy. Coverage was pulled when club opponents contacted its South Portland insurance agent and later allegedly contacted a company executive out of state, to advise that the club’s right to conduct live fire at its range had been suspended by the town. The policy quickly got renewed, but only at an additional annual cost of $6,800 – at 25 percent increase – said club treasurer Peter Darling.

“That makes our efforts to put in the safety upgrades needed to reopen our longer firing lines very difficult, considering that we only bring in about $19,000 a year in club dues and other fundraising activities,” Walter said.

Membership renewals are off by almost two-thirds since the club’s firing range was shut down for several months late last year. The club had more than 300 members, but only 100 or so have paid up as of Jan. 1, Darling said.

It is really somewhat ironic that the same people who worked so hard to get an ordinance in place to regulate our operation in the name of safety are now doing everything in their power to prevent us from raising the money we need to implement the upgrades now required,” said Mark Mayone, the club’s public information officer and representative on the town firing range committee.

The committee was created early last year to oversee newly impose licensing rules for the club, as well as any new gun ranges in town.

Spurwink Rod & Gun Club has operated out of a valley off Sawyer Road since 1956. However, what was then a rural area of far-flung farms has, in more recent years, become a bit of a boomtown.

The Cross Hill subdivision of high-end homes began to spring up in the 1990s and, by 2009, there were complaints of not just noise, but actual bullets coming from the range. Tensions continued to mount, with the town asked to play intermediary. In March 2014, the council adopted a shooting range ordinance as part of a compromise measure. Although state law prohibits the town from taking action against an existing firing range based on noise, it can impose rules based on safety concerns and regulate general operating guidelines. Among the ordinance provisions was the creation of a new firing range committee to oversee municipal licensing of the club for the first time, after six decades of operation.

During that process, the committee received a third party report commissioned by Town Manager Michael McGovern. The 19-page review, delivered on July 23 by Rick LaRosa of Keenesaw, Georgia, found fault with the club’s firing line configuration and its three-year improvement plan. The next day, Police Chief Neil Williams shut down the club’s firing range.

That report initially put issuance of the club’s operating license in doubt. However, at an Oct. 14 meeting, the town council voted unanimously to grant an operating license to the gun club with the provision that live fire not resume until deemed safe by both LaRosa and Code Enforcement Officer Ben McDougal.

At first it was unclear how long that might take. LaRosa said full implementation of his plan to make sure no bullet could ever leave the firing rage would cost nearly $1 million. The price tag for fixing just the shortest 25-yard pistol line was pegged at about $200,000. At that time, Darling said the club had less than $20,000 on hand, making odds of reopening seem long at best.

But LaRosa’s job estimate had not included the possibility of donated materials and time, or even that he himself would pitch in. It also was, as Mayone points out, a “from scratch” estimate, not accounting for the fact the club already owned its lot, and no site preparation was needed beyond enclosing the firing line.

The new line, which was once simply an area paced out in an open field before a shallow embankment, is now enclosed by two feet of concrete on either side. Above the line, a series of steel plating, multi-layered wood beams, and rubber mat wrappings, are placed in a configuration known as “no blue sky,” such that while the line remains open to the elements, there is no place for a shooter to aim from the firing position that would allow a bullet to escape the line without first hitting one of the cross beams.

The 30-foot and 25-yard firing lines were allowed to reopen Dec. 18.

However, by that time, club opponents from Cross Hill were working on an effort Walter calls, “trying to nickel and dime us to death.”

The club’s tax-exempt status had been questioned before. In 2011, while representing residents of Cross Hill, Cape Elizabeth attorney Jamie Wagner asked Sturgis why the club paid no property tax. At that time, Sturgis said the club was exempt “as a fraternal organization.”

At that time, Mayone said, the club was organized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. However, since then it reorganized as a 501(c)7, a designation reserved for sporting clubs. That change was made on the advice of an accountant, Mayone said, because the club had suspended the charity shoots it once hosted. Those events, he said, were known as excessive noise makers, even for neighbors used to and tolerant of club activities. The club also at that time moved the training events for younger sportsmen offsite, to other area gun clubs, again in an effort to cut back on noise.

“So, that’s another point of irony,” Mayone said. “We did all this stuff to try and placate the Cross Hill residents, to try and be the kind of good neighbor they can live with, and they are now using that as a weapon against us.”

In August 2015, after inquiring about and learning of the 501(c)7 designation, Cross Hill resident Jim Richard began to pepper Sturgis with requests to explain why the club was still not paying property taxes. While it paid nothing, the Purpoodock Club, also organized as a 501(c)7, paid $69,844 to the town last year, Richard noted in an Aug. 30 email.

Then, on Sept. 15, Town Councilor Sara Lennon joined the exchange. In an email to McGovern, Lennon, then a candidate for office, having previously served on the council from 2007-2012, said, “It seems unfair that this most disruptive organization in town contributes nothing to our tax base. Perhaps a lawyer who specializes in tax law could take a look at the assumptions behind this waiver?”

Lennon also wrote to Sturgis, saying, “While you are researching this question, it’s worth determining if they actually owe us 60 years of back taxes.”

Sturgis replied that making the club pay that far back was “not permissible by law” in Maine. However, because Sturgis had nothing on file but the precedent of his predecessors, he planned to ask the club to file a formal request for tax exemption.

The club did so, after which Sturgis ruled in his Dec. 9 letter that while its 501 (c) 7 status exempted it from income taxes, it did not mandate a waiver in property taxes. The status also means donations to the club are not tax deductible, he added.

Walter said the club plans to meet a Feb. 9 deadline to file an appeal of Sturgis’s decision. Club officers also will ask during their next appearance before city councilors, that it recuse Lennon from further participation in deliberations related to their club.

“Based on her activities, both before and after her election, we don’t feel she can be objective in regards to our existence,” Mayone said.

There is precedent for that. After representing the Cross Hill neighbors, Wagner was forced by his peers to sit out gun club deliberations. However, he later was chairman of the firing range committee, and club members have praised his fairness.

Lennon, who replaced Wagner on the committee, is, essentially, an active and constant vote against them, club officers said.

“Just based on the number of anti-NRA things she’s posted on her Facebook page, we feel very strongly that she is biased against our existing at all,” Walter said.

Lennon could not be reached for comment Monday.

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