Moratorium on shooting ranges

Kirk Boxleitner kboxleitner@ptleader.com
Posted 2/6/18

Editor's note: CORRECTION

This story has been updated to reflect a correction from the print edition

It was a packed house at the Jefferson County Superior Courtroom on the evening of Feb. 5 as …

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Moratorium on shooting ranges

Posted

Editor's note: CORRECTION

This story has been updated to reflect a correction from the print edition

It was a packed house at the Jefferson County Superior Courtroom on the evening of Feb. 5 as members of the public testified in support of or opposition to the commissioners’ Dec. 18 passage of a one-year moratorium on modifying existing or establishing new commercial shooting facilities.

During their morning meeting that day, all three commissioners had already conceded that they were unlikely to reach a decision on whether to end or continue the moratorium during the public hearing, given the volume of written public comments they were accepting. They made that postponement official when they extended the written public comment deadline to 4:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 9. Commissioners did not say when they might make a decision.

The hearing was not without its theatrical displays. Peter Bahls, cofounder of the Northwest Watershed Institute (NWI), asked for a show of hands from those who favor the moratorium, and then one from those who disagree with it.

Noah Frisch of Chimacum devoted all three minutes of his allotted time to playing noises of gunfire in a wildlife setting that had been recorded on his phone.

PROPERTY PROTECTION

The majority of speakers expressed support for the moratorium, and almost all of them cited the same concerns: the health of the natural environment, the quality of life for local residents; the economic viability of businesses that rely on tourist traffic; and a tranquil atmosphere.

Peter Bahls, director of Northwest Watershed Institute, said that a private weapons training compound proposed in the Tarboo area could lead to toxic algae in Tarboo Lake. He said, “Gunfire from the proposed project would degrade public recreational use at Tarboo Lake, impact public and treaty-reserved hunting opportunities on surrounding forestlands, risk contamination of soil and water with lead and other explosion-related contaminants, and degrade property values of rural residential landowners.”

Pascale Sanok voiced concern about the impact on the shellfish industry.

Judith Rubin, Bahls’ fellow cofounder of NWI, suggested that the degradation of the environment around Tarboo Lake could compromise tribal treaty hunting rights. Rubin also insisted that permitting for Fort Discovery’s proposed Cedar Hills Recreational Center shooting facility in the Tarboo area should not be approved piecemeal, but should instead be approved or denied in total, in accordance with its judged cumulative effect.

Rubin was joined by Janet Welch and Tom Thiersch in asserting that they were “unable to find any guiding principles” regarding anything but “smaller recreational shooting facilities” in the county code. They agreed that would be an insufficient definition for the Jefferson County Sportsmen’s Association gun range or Fort Discovery’s proposed Cedar Hills facility.

“The ordinance refers to a commercial shooting facility, and we’ve already heard these referred to as private facilities, so is the ordinance comprehensive enough in its definitions?” Welch asked.

Pat Stroble and his wife, Fern, live 2 miles from Tarboo Lake, and each testified to the adverse effects that gunfire noise has had on their honey bee business, noting that agitation is communicated all too easily among bees, such as the Russian bees that the Strobles work with.

Pat Stroble said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a complication from his experience as a serviceman in a Vietnam War. He claimed that 234 of the 1,328 residents in their ZIP code are also veterans, and that close to a quarter of those folks are receiving treatment for PTSD.

“When he hears gunfire, he’s back in Vietnam,” Fern said as she held back tears.

Diane Johnson said that the glacial till that formed the ridges and valleys of East Jefferson County also intermixed soils with widely divergent chemical compositions and drainage, which she insists would make it “impossible to tell” whether lead-tainted water is affecting the surrounding environment.

Chimacum’s Chris Sanok, father of Pascale Sanok, noted that he works for the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, which has to dispose of hazardous chemicals. He asserted that “we wouldn’t dump our [hazardous chemicals] in Tarboo,” because of co-op members’ concern with the welfare of future generations, “so they won’t own 40 acres of lead-contaminated ground.”

Both George Yount and Robin Johnson recommended that Jefferson County adopt Kitsap County’s policies on shooting ranges, with Yount advocating that all shooting take place inside soundproof building. Johnson called for such ranges to be sited 500 yards away from any shoreline.

Initially, Susan Freeman of Quilcene thought she might manage to get 300 signatures for her petition to the county to develop more concrete guidelines regarding shooting ranges. Consequently, she was surprised to collect 1,200 signatures, “many of them from people who own and use guns.”

‘NOT IN MY BACKYARD’

Joe D’Amico, president of Fort Discovery, was one of the last speakers, after three Fort Discovery employees and his attorney had spoken.

D’Amico thanked the county’s Department of Community Development for being “open-minded.” To those who had asserted the primacy of existing property owners’ rights, he pointed out that he was a fourth-generation native of East Jefferson County who had operated out of Discovery Bay for more than 30 years until moving his headquarters last fall to Clallam County.

“I’ve looked at the alternatives and tried to do the right thing,” D’Amico said, noting that he chose the Tarboo area for his proposed Cedar Hills facility after receiving recommendations that it be located somewhere relatively remote. “Rest assured, we want to be good neighbors.”

D’Amico said he’s been researching noise-canceling options, including concrete barriers similar to those employed for freeways. He then countered concerns that the Cedar Hills facility would lower Tarboo property values by challenging those in attendance to name “one piece of property” in Discovery Bay for which property values declined during his company’s time there.

“If you’re worried about lead contamination, the county already owns 40 acres of lead, and that’s the Jefferson County Sportsmen’s Association,” said D’Amico, who pledged to follow the best possible practices in containing and disposing of lead.

“I worry about the financial pressure this moratorium has put on the county,” he added. “I think it will cost the county.”

When some members of the crowd reacted audibly, D’Amico said, “I’m not making any kind of threat,” and clarified that he was referring to the additional hours that county staff are likely to work as a result of the moratorium, just as he foresees his own staff working more hours than they would otherwise.

Greg Overstreet, D’Amico’s attorney, cited the 2017 U.S. Court of Appeals 7th Circuit case of Ezell v. City of Chicago as providing a legal reason for why there need to be shooting ranges in the county.

Overstreet quoted the 7th Circuit’s analysis of the Ezell case, which stated that “the core individual right of armed defense […] includes a corresponding right to acquire and maintain proficiency in firearms use through target practice at a range.”

Overstreet noted that the City of Chicago’s zoning had left only 2.2 percent of its total acreage “even theoretically available” to site a shooting range, and estimated that the existing gun range for the Jefferson County Sportsmen’s Association covers a far smaller percentage of county land than that.

Port Townsend’s John Ebner and Port Hadlock’s Neil Morgan both said they could agree with a moratorium in principle, but could not support the current moratorium as implemented by the county.

“This moratorium is unnecessarily time-consuming, when you consider the numerous regulations that are already in place,” Ebner said. “If an establishment doesn’t abide by those standards, then they shouldn’t get a permit.”

Morgan, a 66-year resident of the county, predicted that limiting legal shooting ranges would result in illegal shooting spilling out “into every secondary road in the county, including around Tarboo Lake.”

“We need ranges to train people,” said Steven Blazina of Port Ludlow. “They can attempt to seek out the best conditions available, but I don’t know where they could locate that would make everyone happy. People say, ‘Not in my backyard,’ but Jefferson County is small enough that everybody lives in someone else’s backyard.”

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