Board delays firearm forum until after hunting season

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Forums on Essex’s firearms ordinance will wait on hunting season after the selectboard delayed its search for a facilitator.

In a memo to the board, deputy town manager Greg Duggan offered a timeline for the public engagement process. It showed the consultant hosting public forums in October and November before recommending whether to modify the town’s existing firearms ordinance.

In response, Ben Broe, whose family owns property at 54 Lost Nation Rd., penned a letter urging members to shelve the forums until after deer hunting season, which runs from October through mid-December.

“Hunters will want to personally attend these public forums, and these proposed times make that difficult,” his letter says. “They will be out doing what they enjoy.”

At Monday night’s meeting, selectman Michael Plageman said he strongly favors pushing back the timeline. Failure to do so would “marginalize hunters” and be “begging for a fight,” he said.

“They deserve to be heard,” he said.

Selectwoman Sue Cook responded she’s not sure why the board would single out one group when there’s “a whole series” of reasons one might miss a meeting. She and Irene Wrenner voted against the schedule shift. The postponement passed 3-2.

While delaying the process by at least four months, the decision likely won’t affect overall timeline. Duggan said it was already too late for any recommendations to encompass the 2017 hunting season. Once chosen, the facilitator will have a $10,000 budget and be expected to complete the process within a month, the job posting reads. The final report is then due at a regular selectboard meeting in the following weeks.

Shooting is currently prohibited in Essex Jct. and in some of the more densely populated areas of Essex Town.

The facilitator must wade through the heated debate over safety and individual rights that has filled meetings in recent years. Some residents say a more restrictive ordinance would protect public parks and residences. Others say tighter regulations overstep the town’s right to mandate what residents do on their private property.

The advertisement doesn’t require the facilitator be familiar with firearms, a request one hunter made at a meeting last year. Broe’s letter says this is concerning. Duggan said it’s best to have someone who knows nothing about the topic at hand.

“They’re there to guide the discussion,” he said. “The content is almost irrelevant to them.”

The advertisement does share some background information for potential candidates, however, including mention of John Reiss, the Old Stage Rd. resident who was killed in 2008 by a stray bullet from a neighboring gun range.

Reiss’ death sparked a review of the ordinance by a selectboard-appointed citizen taskforce in 2008. The group recommended about 20 individual changes the selectboard never acted on.

“I do not believe that it will be in anyone’s best interest to wait until there is another tragic shooting incident,” wrote Pete Gagliardi, chairman of the taskforce, in a 2009 statement to the board.

Since then, residential development has since sprouted greater density in Essex’s more rural areas, the advertisement explains.

The issue then returned before the selectboard in 2016, eight years after Reiss’ death, when police Chief Brad LaRose declared changes are necessary. He was prompted by a 2015 shooting incident that left a bullet lodged in the wall of a Deer Crossing Ln. resident.

“The probability of a fired projectile striking a person or property has increased significantly,” he said at the time, adding a full-out ban would be the safest approach, though not fair to those who shoot safely.

LaRose altered his suggestion after researching two towns that revamped their ordinance in recent years, Colchester and Williston. By using qualifying language to discriminate specific firearm types in certain areas, seen as a compromise, those towns helped push through changes, LaRose said.

For Essex, a phase-in approach could begin with Indian Brook Park and Saxon Hill Forest, two popular walking and biking locations, he added. The advertisement says the facilitator’s final report should be based, at least in part, on LaRose’s options.

Wrenner said she’d rather skip the engagement process and have the board act on the chief’s recommendations instead of “putting it off and studying it.”

“We’ve convened people, we’ve had them work hard, they put out a report, and it sat on the shelf,” she said.

Plus, the board can expect one-sided attendance: Those opposed to more stringent regulations have intimidated and “psychologically threatened” those in favor, Wrenner said, adding in one case, someone was prevented from leaving their driveway.   

“I don’t think this will serve the purpose that we want it to serve,” she said. “It’s an exercise in spending $10,000 to get back to square one.”

Levy said Wrenner’s concerns are exactly why the board said it wanted a facilitator, one who can seek input in various ways, including electronic.

“If we just bully our way through with the selectboard without doing it in a way that ensures these voices are heard, we’re not doing our job,” he said, adding the candidate will be made aware of the past contentions.

Compared to what the board received this week, however, the final version of the advertisement will be slightly modified: particularly, its wording.

“The word ‘polarizing’ is in there a couple of times,” Duggan said. “‘A polarizing issue.”’

“We changed that to ‘important,’” he said.