An attorney threatened the Jefferson County Commissioners with an open meetings lawsuit when a number of members of the public, including his client, were allegedly “turned away” from a public …
An attorney threatened the Jefferson County Commissioners with an open meetings lawsuit when a number of members of the public, including his client, were allegedly “turned away” from a public hearing on the drafted shooting ordinance.
“Do you wonder why Joe D’Amico is not here tonight?” asked attorney Greg Overstreet, who represents Joe D’Amico, president of Fort Discovery, during the Oct. 1 hearing at the Jefferson County Courthouse. “He arrived at 6:30. I was there. He was turned away. There was ‘no space’ because it was obvious to everyone this building cannot hold all the people who were going to come.”
Last September, D’Amico began the pre-application process for opening a shooting facility near Tarboo Lake, called the Cedar Hills Recreation Facility. Shortly after, in December, the county commissioners passed a moratorium on modifying existing or establishing new commercial shooting facilities until Dec. 17 of this year. At the public hearing on Oct. 1, according to Overstreet, D’Amico was planning to make public comment on a proposed ordinance that, if enacted, would require an operating permit for both existing and proposed commercial shooting facilities
“The one person who was most affected by this proposed ordinance was prevented from attending,” Overstreet said. “It looks like this week, we’ll be filing an open public meetings lawsuit to overturn this meeting and make it a do-over.”
According to Mark McCauley, Jefferson County Central Services director, the hearing brought in roughly 300 people.
Several hours before the meeting was set to begin, there was already a line of people waiting to enter the courthouse. Doors were opened to the public at 5:30 p.m.
By the start of the 6:30 p.m. hearing, there were four rooms in the county courthouse at capacity: the superior courtroom, where the hearing was held; the district courtroom; the first-floor conference room; and the Board of County Commissioners’ Chambers.
In order to accommodate the crowd, the commissioners set upon a plan that Commissioner Kathleen Kler later called “good intentions with imperfect results.”
Those wishing to speak would write their name on a sign-up sheet. When the superior courtroom reached capacity, the hearing was streamed live to the three other rooms, and to speakers outside the courthouse. Those who signed up to speak waited for a spot in the superior courtroom to open up before heading in to give their comments.
According to McCauley, no one was turned away from the public hearing, but Overstreet claimed he saw D’Amico turned away.
“There was a group of people milling around outside who could not get in,” Overstreet said after the hearing. “I don’t mean to suggest that he was specifically targeted.”
As the hearing came to an end, commission Chairman David Sullivan suggested a continuation of the hearing be held at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Jefferson County Courthouse Superior Courtroom so those who could not access the hearing, such as D’Amico, would have an opportunity to do so.
“I think we need to err on the side of accessibility,” said Commissioner Kate Dean.
The commissioners unanimously passed a motion to continue the hearing Thursday evening despite some attendees commenting it was not enough time to alert people.
Despite the continuation, which will allow more people to speak, Overstreet said after the hearing he still plans to look into a lawsuit, citing RCW 4230.030, the open public meetings act, which states, “All meetings of the governing body of a public agency shall be open and public and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the governing body of a public agency.”
A wave of dissent
At 4:30 p.m., a mist was falling outside the courthouse, and a line of people gathered outside the doors, each wearing a green or yellow badge on their clothing — their membership cards for the Jefferson County Sportsmen’s Association.
Once they were let inside, the courthouse filled up quickly with a majority of JCSA supporters and members, as well as members of the Tarboo Ridge Coalition, and concerned citizens. Nearly 70 people spoke during the hearing. More than half of the speakers were in support of the JCSA, while a smaller amount of TRC members also spoke.The TRC had already submitted written comment to the commissioners.
All were gathered to make comments to the county commissioners on a proposed ordinance for commercial shooting facilities.
Most of the public comments made were against the ordinance, describing it as “onerous,” “confusing,” “costly,” “ill-defined,” and “draconian.” The commenters had recommendations to improve it or recommendations that the commissioners throw it out and start over completely.
But the opposition to the ordinance came from two different sides: supporters of the JCSA who thought that requiring new permits for existing shooting facilities would be too costly for JCSA to survive, and the TRC, who thought the ordinance did not have enough regulation for new shooting facilities, specifically the Cedar Hills Recreational Facility.
“I have reviewed this ordinance and, in my opinion, it is so fatally flawed that it must be rejected totally,” said Gene Farr, who came forward as a concerned citizen to support the JCSA, even though he is not a member. “If you look at the record of the sportsmen’s association, they have over 50 years of outstanding safety, environmental stewardship, and they provide a very valuable resource to this county.”
While the ordinance was described more than once as “onerous,” the JCSA was stressed repeatedly to be a “jewel” of Jefferson County. Members and supporters of the JCSA are worried that requiring permits for new and existing commercial shooting facilities will be too costly for the facility to survive.
The draft ordinance was developed by an advisory board made up of 12 members with a range of viewpoints. It met 15 times during the summer to develop recommendations for county staff, with a culminating discussion Sept. 10. One member of the committee was John Minor, who is a member of the JCSA. Minor said he thought the advisory committee allowed a diverse group of stakeholders to bring information forward for the ordinance, but some things still do not sit well, such as the definition of “commercial” shooting facilities.
“We’d like to see ourselves exempt as a nonprofit organization,” said Julia Towne, secretary of the JCSA. “We don’t consider ourselves a commercial shooting range.”
Meanwhile, several members of the Tarboo Ridge Coalition stressed they were not “anti-gun” and had no intention to cause the JCSA to shut down, but were only concerned about D’Amico’s proposed gun and archery range, Cedar Hills Recreational Facility, on 40 acres of forest property on the north shore of Tarboo Lake, near where many of the TRC members live.
The ordinance was not enough regulation for the TRC, although many members support JCSA.
“We support JCSA,” said Riley Parker, board member of the TRC and advisory committee member. “I grew up shooting at a Sportsmen's Club.”
Parker added the TRC is supporting indoor ranges for all new facilities to increase safety, control noise and control lead pollution in the environment.
According to Sullivan, the ordinance is “based on health and safety issues that have been cited at gun facilities.”
However, several public comments during the hearing alluded to the commissioners targeting D’Amico’s proposed Cedar Hills Recreation Facility specifically, causing existing ranges like the JCSA to get caught in the crossfires.
The proposed ordinance also sites an incident where bullets struck a residence near a JCSA shooting facility in November 2017 as one of the reasons leading to a need for increased safety, although an investigation into the incident later showed the bullets were most likely not from the JCSA.
“They can’t prove that the incident was affiliated with the JCSA,” Towne said, adding the “whereas” in the ordinance mentioning the incident should be removed. “It’s a moot point.”
The moratorium on new and existing shooting facilities was put in place several months after D’Amico began the pre-application process with the county to locate a gun and archery range near Tarboo Lake.
In a statement given to The Leader on Dec. 20, 2017, D’Amico said the moratorium was “aimed specifically at my business – no other entity is proposing to establish a commercial gun range.”
Despite the moratorium, work has continued on the facility near Tarboo Lake. A post on the Cedar Hills Recreational Facility’s Facebook page Sept. 10 stated, “Contractors at Cedar Hills today … getting closer to open some gun ranges!!”
The TRC, which opposes the facility being built near Tarboo Lake, submitted 12 “essential” changes to the draft ordinance, including no outdoor night shooting, a limit on the number of firing points, no aircraft landing at the facility, no overnight accommodations, environmental testing for copper, environmental testing to establish a preoperative baseline, consequences for permit violations, improved permit procedures, nuisance noises defined and prohibited, whistleblower protection, retention of the existing no-shooting area, and military and law enforcement certification.
The JCSA intends to submit written changes to the ordinance as well, according to Towne.
The commissioners will read and listen to all public comment before any further action is taken on the ordinance. More than 50 people made comments in person, and they received around 292 pages of written comment since the public comment period opened.
For Sullivan, the public hearing process is important, not only for the commissioners to receive suggestions but also so citizens can hear from each other.
“There’s times when we’ve changed things just because one person had a good idea,” Sullivan said. “We know people have strong feelings on both sides of the issue. … Everyone has a right to be heard.”
Public comment on the ordinance will be taken in written form until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 5, and can be submitted by mail to the Board of Jefferson County Commissioners at P.O. Box 1220, Port Townsend, WA 98368 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those who may not have had a chance to speak at the public hearing Oct. 1, a continuation of that meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 in the Jefferson County Courthouse.
To view the draft ordinance, go to https://www.co.jefferson.wa.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=180.