The Essex Selectboard voiced support for a revised shooting ordinance last week that would allow hunting in two town parks for eight months of the year while leaving a large swath of private land untouched – a decision that would appease hunters and change little.

Members heeded to the urgings of a predominately pro-hunting crowd at last Thursday’s work session, twice extending a proposal to permit shooting only during deer season. Instead, they voiced tentative support for prohibiting shooting throughout the summer – from June 1 to September 30, estimated as the parks busiest months – and allow hunting the rest of the year.

The board isn’t bound to that route. Members plan to hash out further details, including specific dates, at a future meeting and must host public hearings before finalizing any changes.

But the work session provided the public its first real sense of the board’s direction after months of outreach, surveys and forums and suggested residents are unlikely to see major changes any time soon.

The selectboard focused the session on three areas: publicly-owned land at Indian Brook and Saxon Hill parks and a large swath of private properties in the northern quadrant of town. Citizens weighed in during 20-minute public comment windows between the board’s discussion on each area.

Chairman Max Levy kicked off the night with an initial proposal to limit shooting to a six-week period at Indian Brook Park. After brief debate, the board opted to include a 500-foot buffer around the land’s perimeter.

That proposal didn’t sit well with some in the crowd.

Some urged the board to remove the buffer and only regulate shooting on public land, arguing anything else is an overreach of the town’s jurisdiction and suggesting it could face a legal challenge if it chooses to legislate private property.

Others worried it would set an unfavorable precedent. “We’ve got this 500 feet this year, what’s to stop you from doing 1,000 feet next year?” asked resident Jeff Sisters.

Selectman Andy Watts agreed the town should stick to public land. But the rest of the board held firm.

“A bullet does not honor a boundary, so a 500-foot buffer feels reasonable to me,” selectwoman Elaine Sopchak said.

Several others asked the board to consider extending the shooting window to other hunting seasons, too, especially those that use shotguns, which hunters said are safer because their ammunition travels a much shorter distance than rifles’.

The last point seemed to resonate with several members. Asked if the public input swayed members’ stances, selectwoman Irene Wrenner said she’d like to “honor the other seasons hunters want to take wildlife” from Indian Brook.

“So you mean allow firearms all the time?” Levy asked.

Wrenner said the town could still restrict shooting based on the type of bullets, but she’d support an extended window. Watts, Sopchak and Michael Plageman agreed.

Only a few attendees spoke in favor of Levy’s proposal. One was Gale Batsimm, a former Essex resident who just moved to Burlington, who said she regularly cross-country skis and hikes through the town’s recreational areas year-round. In an email to The Reporter, Batsimm said she was disappointed to see the selectboard “flip flop” from what she saw as a reasonable compromise.

“There is a small contingent of gun extremists who attend these meetings, and most citizens, even many hunters, are intimidated to attend because of them,” she wrote. “The selectboard was also intimidated into pandering to them.”

Levy eventually recognized he was outnumbered. Watching the shooting window quickly expand, he asked if there was any season not open for hunting. Moments later, he added, “That’s a serious question.”

After the public comment portion for Saxon Hill, most of the board agreed on a no-shooting timeframe that started in June so turkey hunters weren’t excluded. Watts then considered whether the board should prohibit birdshot discharges at all, noting that with such a small window, it seemed “frivolous.”

Sopchak, however, drew the line there, citing concerns she’s heard from residents who use the park for non-hunting activities. She said she’s not in favor of allowing any firearm discharge during the park’s busiest months.

Asked if she wanted to move the non-shooting start date to May 1, Sopchak hesitated. She then explained her thought process.

“I’m struggling here,” she said, “because I don’t want to limit the rights of people who are using the parks to recreate one way versus the rights of people who use the park to recreate in a different way.

“The problem is one of the ways the recreation is used scares people and can hurt people if it’s done wrong.”

She said she’s concerned the board was moving the dates all over the place and said she’s “still a little torn” about making such a small window where people can feel safe in the parks.

Sensing an opening, Levy said he’d like to again propose the board keep the shooting window to only deer season, noting the animals are most commonly described as pests to resident properties. He gained little traction.

“It’s getting down to such a small number of days,” Levy said, “I have to question why we limit it at all?”

The board then decided to move on to its third zone, a large conglomerate of private parcels in the north-central part of town where members would likely have faced major backlash for attempting to legislate.

After a brief discussion, they decided to leave that area as-is, with a stipulation that it come up for review every five-to-seven years so future boards can gauge the area’s residential growth and see if any changes are needed.

Several hunters were pleased with the board’s direction after last Thursday’s meeting.  Mike Cady thought the board succeeded in “trying to steer toward the middle and not toward one of the polar ends” and believed members listened to resident concerns.

“You can’t make a very valid decision without all the information,” Cady said. “They’ve done good to be open ears to new information that perhaps they didn’t know about until tonight.”

Still, Cady and numerous other hunters challenged the board’s decision to keep the 500-foot buffer and doubted it has the legal authority to do so.

That question has come up time and again during the ordinance discussion, and despite input from their lawyer confirming the board has the right to legislate shooting “within the entirety of the town,” members remain unsure of their legal standing.

Several people in favor of the tighter restrictions point to the village, where shooting is prohibited throughout the municipality, even on private land. But hunters have repeatedly suggested – and in some cases threatened – legal action against the town if it tries to limit their right to shoot, and therefore hunt, on their property.

Jeff Sisters points at a map during the Essex Selectboard’s firearm ordinance work session. (Colin Flanders | Essex Reporter)

Brad Kennison, a hunter and member of a citizen committee opposed to the ordinance changes, said he wasn’t sure if such a ban would stand up in court, but to him, that was beside the point.

“I don’t know why the town would want to create this animosity with their neighbors, with the people who own property around the park. I just don’t think it’s necessary,” he said.

The board asked staff to return to a future selectboard meeting with more information on hunting seasons so it can finalize the date range. That information was included in their board packets Monday night. Deputy town manager Greg Duggan said he’s now working to draft language for an ordinance change aligned with the selectboard’s discussion last week.

With some issues still up in the air, Levy said staff may need to share multiple drafts of any ordinance language, meaning the board will likely miss its goal of implementing changes before hunting season.

But as some pointed out, given the board’s current direction, that timeline appears all but moot.