The Essex Selectboard has stripped references to shooting ranges from its firearm discharge ordinance, advancing less controversial changes that will limit hunting in town parks but do nothing to curb shooting on private properties. Members unanimously accepted the pared-down ordinance Monday night and hope to officially adopt the changes next month.
Hunters and recreational shooters who opposed the changes view the move as a victory and praised the board for its willingness to change course.
“I want to thank the board for finally listening to a majority of residents and using some common sense approach to this ordinance,” said Bradley Kennison, one of the selectboard’s most vocal critics during this process.
“I’m very happy to stand up here and say I agree with everything you all talked about tonight,” added Mike Cady, who has become a de-facto spokesman for the pro-shooting crowd.
The ordinance accepted Monday night prohibits shooting at the Essex Tree Farm and allows it at two town parks – Indian Brook and Saxon Hill – during a 60-day window covering deer hunting season: October 15 to December 15. The board agreed to expand the window at the bequest of hunters, who noted the initial dates didn’t cover all deer hunting seasons.
Under the now-discarded shooting range proposal, meanwhile, property owners who shoot in their backyards would have needed to register with the town. They would have also needed to file a notification form with a site plan of their property, an assurance that their range met NRA safety standards and proof of liability insurance with a minimum coverage of $500,000.
The selectboard initially shied away from confronting backyard shooting ranges but lumped the topic into this round of ordinance revisions — the first in over 20 years — after hearing from residents who believed the practice posed a far greater threat and nuisance than hunting does.
There’s no federal, state or local entity that oversees backyard ranges, meaning no one has any idea how many exist within the town’s borders. A registry would have changed that by informing officials of where these ranges are located. But to ensure people actually reported their properties, the town would have needed an enforcement plan.
Selectmen Andy Watts had repeatedly questioned this aspect of the proposal, fearing the town could be held liable if it did nothing to improve the safety of unsafe ranges. The board delayed a vote last month so staff could answer these questions, and feedback shared ahead of Monday’s meeting suggested Watts’ concerns were well-founded.
“Once you begin to regulate [shooting ranges] in some way, even if it is for reporting purposes only, you will incur some potential liability,” wrote Fred Satink, deputy director of underwriting and loss control for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, in an email to town staff. “More liability would be present if, for example, the forms were not properly evaluated or followed up on – or there were reported deficiencies that were not acted upon.”
Satink said he saw three ways to reduce the town’s risk: don’t regulate the ranges at all, not even the reporting aspect; regulate the ranges “even more tightly” through a comprehensive inspection program to ensure they meet NRA standards; or increase the liability insurance for homeowners to $5 million, enough to “fully insulate” the town from wrongful death or paraplegia suits, which can “cost several million dollars.”
Opponents have argued the requirements would place a prohibitive financial burden on many recreational shooters while doing little to ensure overall safety. Several board members eventually arrived at the same conclusion. “I think where we ended up isn’t really doing what we hoped,” said vice chairman Max Levy, who first proposed the shooting range rules. Other members agreed. “I think there are other ways to address safety that are on more solid legal ground,” chairwoman Elaine Haney said.
Selectboard members tipped their hand last month when saying they may need to separate shooting ranges from the current revisions so they can seek more public feedback while still passing the changes around town parks. So the shift came as little surprise, arriving in response to intense scrutiny from a majority pro-shooting crowd last month.
Opponents of the changes have charged the board with using the proposal to infringe on their rights and invade their privacy, and some have even threatened the board with lawsuits if it passed.
The board’s decision Monday makes a date in court less likely — for now at least. But Haney said the board’s work is not done.
Members still plan to consider how to limit backyard shooting, she said, perhaps through a zoning-based ordinance that would dictate where people can discharge certain firearms, or through a new town noise ordinance, which could address the frequency and duration of shooting.
Still, Haney was reluctant to put a timeframe on it, noting the board has much to do in the coming months, starting with budget season and work toward a potential 2020 merger vote.
“When we do bring it back up again, you will all be told,” she said. “Public safety is still something we’re going to continue to look at.”
But comments at Monday’s meeting showed supporters of stronger regulations remain disappointed by the board’s unwillingness to follow through.
Several pointed to the 2008 death of John Reiss, who was shot in the head by a stray bullet fired from a nearby backyard shooting range. Reminding the board that Reiss’ death first prompted the town to look into changing the ordinance more than a decade ago, resident Niels Giddins said elected officials have done nothing to reduce the likelihood of that happening again. “So I know where you stand,” he said.
And Mia Watson, Reiss’ granddaughter, said while she appreciated the work to get this far, “In the end, after 11 years, nothing has been done to make this town safer for people in their own homes.”