Selectboard chairman Max Levy outlined a proposal last week that would require anyone with a backyard shooting range to obtain a permit through the selectboard. The process would give the town at least some control over a practice that, as of now, has virtually no municipal oversight.

“We know people are almost always responsible when it comes to [backyard shooting],” Levy said. “But we are looking to make some progress here toward safety, noise and how can ranges also work to be good neighbors – as most of them, I assume, are today.”

Under his proposal, residents would need to offer a sketch of their property, including all buildings within a yet-to-be-determined distance, and outline expected hours of operation. Requesters would then have to present that information at a selectboard meeting, and town staff would alert all abutting neighbors and business so they have a chance to speak prior to any decision, Levy said.

Town staff had repeatedly raised concerns over permitting due to potential liability, but attorney Bill Ellis said he’s not overly worried as long as the permits include language stating property owners must take on full risk and liability of operating a range in town.

Members modified several aspects of Levy’s proposal during their Nov. 6 meeting. They decided against requiring background checks, instead asking Essex police to inform them of any prior range-related issues, and suggested the permits be issued in perpetuity so landowners only need to come back before the board if they make substantial changes to the range or if their property changes hands.

“I want to make this easy on folks,” selectwoman Irene Wrenner said.

Levy’s proposal came two weeks after a majority of members tentatively agreed to prohibit shooting at the Essex Tree Farm and allow it at two town parks – Indian Brook and Saxon Hill – during a 45-day window covering deer hunting season.

The board decided to lump shooting ranges into its ongoing revisions to the firearm discharge ordinance, though any decisions are far from final: The board must first host two public hearings before it can approve changes. Officials said they would likely delay those hearings until after budget season, meaning it could be at least three months until the discussion comes up again.

Resident input came in the expected forms during last week’s meeting. Proponents of regulations shared concerns over noise levels and safety, while opponents say the board is abusing its authority and seeking fixes to a problem that doesn’t exist. Complicating matters for the selectboard are some legal complexities that limit its regulation power.

According to a Vermont Supreme Court ruling, sport shooting ranges are exempt from regulation if they existed before May 2006 and maintained the same historic level of noise and use since. Citing those exemptions, selectman Andy Watts asked why the board should include ranges they can’t legislate. Levy said the permit would at least allow the town to create a baseline that could be used to gauge whether a range is used more over time regardless of its age.

Whether the town could penalize someone who doesn’t obtain a permit for a grandfathered range will depend on the situation, Levy told The Reporter in a follow-up email. He said permit conditions can be enforced as long as they don’t prohibit, reduce or limit shooting based on its pre-2006 usage, and at the meeting, likened the enforcement process to that for dog licenses.

“If you have a dog and you don’t get it licensed, nobody is going to come and check. But if that dog gets in a fight and it gets reported, you’re going to get a fine,” he said.

The chairman asked that Chief Rick Garey or his staff review the National Rifle Association range handbook to see if it’s a valid reference manual. If a complaint comes in to the police department, he added, officers could pull the permit and see if the range is registered with the town.

Garey had opposed any proposal that made his department a permitting entity, saying in an August memo that EPD staff aren’t range experts nor do they want to be. But he said last week the process would at least set a “reasonable and acceptable” standard and allow the department to know where ranges are.

Other questions the selectboard will need to tackle are what, if any, criteria it would use to deny a permit and whether it should set hours in which shooting is allowed.

 

Reaction among landowners was mixed, though the majority, like most other meetings on the ordinance, favored no changes. Resident Ed Wilbur said he has a problem with the board legislating private property, especially over an activity people have done for “years and years and years.”

“For me, it feels like it’s a foregone conclusion that you’re trying to take away all our shooting rights,” he said. “I just feel like there’s an agenda, and we’re just not being listened to.”

Kendall Chamberlain agreed. He said he felt discriminated against as a long-time Essex resident. “Am I going to have to move to Jericho?” he asked. “What is going on in Essex?”

But others urged the board to act, including both Brian Murphy and Sarah Salatino, who spoke to The Reporter last month about their ongoing issues with nearby shooting ranges.

“It’s my right as a landowner, being there 21 years, to have peace on my land,” said Salatino, explaining that noise from her neighbors’ shooting ranges have “plagued” her commercial nursery off Brigham Hill Road.

Murphy, meanwhile, said while he believes most people take precautions, safety can be a “subjective” notion. To prove his point, he distributed a map showing a nearby range – a dirt pile – in proximity to his house.

“Do I think it’s going to happen? No,” he said of a shooting accident. “Am I fearful it’s going to happen? Absolutely.”

Several shooters shared their own concerns with the range by Murphy’s house, including Tim Fagnant, who said the diagram “scared the hell out of me.” He also empathized with Salatino but said neighbors like hers give all range owners a bad name: Many shoot safely and respectfully, he said, and asked the board to differentiate between the two.

But selectman Michael Plageman put some responsibility on shooters, too. He urged them to help the board “do the right thing” and weed out unsafe ranges.

“The last thing I want to do is take away your ability to target shoot, but damn it, I don’t want somebody coming in here and telling me that they pulled a round of their house,” Plageman said. “So you know what? Help us out here a bit.”