The selectboard last week took another step toward passing a revised firearm discharge ordinance, accepting new regulations centered around hunting and sport shooting by a vote of 4-1.
The move to “accept” the ordinance is mostly symbolic, representing the first phase of a multi-part procedure. Members will now host a public hearing Aug. 19, at which time they can officially “adopt” the changes if they have no further requests.
The shooting range discussion builds off regulations agreed upon last year that would prohibit shooting at the Essex Tree Farm and allow it at two parks – Indian Brook and the 90-acre school-owned parcel at Saxon Hill – during a 45-day window covering deer hunting season.
But while last week’s meeting marked another milestone in the debate over shooting in town, members remain unable to reach a consensus on one outstanding question: For impacted property owners, how much of a burden is too much?
The question came up during discussions over a notification form that property owners who shoot on their land would need to submit to the town. The form seen last week represented a scaled-back version of the document, with members recently agreeing to nix questions about firearm types and expected hours of use.
Property owners would now need to submit their name, address, date the range was established, intended use of the range and a site plan. They would also need to attach proof of liability insurance with a minimum coverage of $500,000 – a figure town staff said they pulled from shooting policies found in Texas and North Carolina.
Previous concerns over the insurance requirement prompted staff to investigate how it would impact property owners. But staff returned with no clear picture, advising they could not find a simple way of doing so given differences between individual insurance carriers.
Some selectboard members felt pricing shouldn’t factor in their decision. Arguing in favor of the requirement, chairwoman Elaine Haney said she views it as a necessary protection on the public at-large.
“We want to ensure that if something does happen to someone as a result of an accident on a range that the range owner has the wherewithal to make that person whole in some way,” she said. “If they don’t have insurance, that might not be able to happen.”
But others in the board believe it is a step too far.
“The amount of liability insurance you carry is a personal choice,” said selectman Andy Watts, the only official to vote against accepting the ordinance. “I believe if an individual wants to carry liability insurance on their property that it’s up to them to determine how much liability insurance they need.”
Selectmen Patrick Murray also shared concerns, believing the requirement could effectively price out low-income property owners.
“Someone is wealthier, they’ll be able to afford a half-a-million-dollar rider on their insurance policy, which means that we by enacting this may be unfairly targeting part of the population that don’t have the ability to pay,” Murray said.
“Without a solid number,” he continued, “I’m really tossing up in my head whether we should approve it.”
The board still has time to decide. The proposed ordinance mentions the form but doesn’t prescribe its contents, so the board could feasibly wait until just before the ordinance officially went into effect to finalize the document, town manager Greg Duggan said.
The board tabled a decision until staff can provide a better estimate of how much a $500,000 liability insurance policy costs.
Last week’s meeting did offer clarity on some other outstanding questions, like how the town planned to determine whether a range is safe. The solution: Don’t. Instead, the Essex Police Department would confirm that homeowners have properly filled out the notification forms and provided the necessary maps, thus avoiding the potential for the town to be held liable for certifying a range as safe.
“The requirement is the bullets are not to leave your property,” Haney said. “It is the property owner’s responsibility to set up whatever they’re setting up so those bullets stay on their property. We’re making no determination.”
But Watts wasn’t convinced. Explaining his no vote on Monday, he said he supports the changes impacting town parks. But he remains wary of the town signing off on documentation like the notification forms, fearing they could still be construed as a permit signifying a range’s safety.
That’s why his support for the registry falls short of the current proposal. Instead, he’d prefer if the town collect basic information on ranges so that it can add data into the E911 map and give first responders a better understanding of the areas they’re responding to. Town staff said it would consider the legalities of the idea.
The board now finds itself within arm’s reach of finishing the ordinance changes, which have inspired many impassioned meetings over the last decade. The long history was on display again last week as residents from both sides of the issue weighed in: Those who believe the ordinance changes are a long-overdue necessity, and those who feel the town is gearing up to trample their individual rights.
One speaker who fell in the latter category was Daryl Montague, who shoots on land that straddles the Essex-Westford town line. He questioned the selectboard’s authority to regulate what property owners do on their own land.
“You don’t have a choice of what we do on our private domain. It’s that simple,” Montague said just as a timer went off, signifying his 90 seconds were up. When he continued to speak, Haney interrupted. “Mr. Montague, your time is up,” she said.
“My time hasn’t begun,” Montague responded as he left the microphone. “Trust me on that.”