The selectboard has decided to lump shooting ranges into its ongoing discussion about the town’s firearm discharge ordinance with the goal of passing any changes in one sweep. The addition comes in response to repeated citizen concerns over backyard shooting ranges, which some say pose a greater noise nuisance and safety threat than hunting.
Before taking on the new topic, however, the board will finalize the plan for three town-owned parcels: Indian Brook Park, Saxon Hill Forest and the Essex Tree Farm.
Members examined the first two during an August work session, while town staff suggested they also include the Tree Farm because half the property falls within the town’s shooting zone, while the other half is in the village’s no-shooting zone.
Staff is currently drafting ordinance language in line with the board’s vision described last month, one that permits hunting in two town parks for eight months of the year while leaving a large swath of private land unregulated.
This won’t be the first time the selectboard hears testimony about shooting ranges. At a 2016 meeting, several homeowners reported hearing gunshots day and night, both during and outside of hunting season. John Jacob, an Essex native and professional firearms safety instructor, said at the time there are three private target-shooting ranges around Deer Crossing, one of which has no safe backstop.
Jacob and others since have urged the town to sponsor a public shooting range, and the selectboard-appointed citizen taskforce from 2009 recommended the same.
Supporters say it would draw people from private ranges, but it remains unclear whether the town can wholly prevent their use. At that 2016 meeting, then-police Chief Brad LaRose said existing private ranges are grandfathered in even if they’re in designated no-shooting zones. Any new ordinance, he said, can only prevent new private ranges from being used.
But the town’s attorney says Essex likely has the authority to “permit and regulate” future firing ranges through zoning or a stand-alone ordinance process.
The shooting range discussion will no doubt push the selectboard’s initial timetable beyond its goal of finishing changes before hunting season, with the topic now likely carrying the ordinance project well into December and potentially the new year. Still, municipal manager Evan Teich cautioned the board against rushing the process, noting it still has the current ordinance in place.
“We would rather make it as good as we can make it, and as less confusing as we can make it, than just getting it to a date,” Teich said.
The board will work on language governing the town-owned parcels October 15 and, if those are finished, move on to shooting ranges November 5. If it wraps up both topics within those two meetings and agrees on language for the ordinance, the board can then start the public hearing process.