The selectboard agreed Monday night to allow hunting on several town-owned properties for a month-and-a-half out of the year, substantially cutting back a proposal most members had tentatively supported just two months prior.
Their new proposition allows gun owners to discharge firearms at Indian Brook Park and Saxon Hill Park from November 1 to December 15; nixes a 500-foot buffer around the parks that would have extended onto private property; and leaves the so-called blue zone – a large swath of private land in the northern part of town – untouched, while shooting at the Essex Tree Farm would be banned year-round.
Town staff will now re-draft ordinance language, and the selectboard must host several public hearings before the new rule is on the books.
The five-member board took no official vote Monday night, and enthusiasm for the proposal varied. But a clear consensus emerged during the hour-long discussion: Three officials agreed hunting will only be allowed during deer season, with chairman Max Levy and selectwoman Elaine Sopchak offering the strongest take, believing it represents a fair compromise between the rights of hunters and the safety of the entire community.
“With so many people in that park throughout the year, I’m just trying to use what I see as common sense,” Levy said, noting he originally opposed hunting on these properties but recognizes the need to control the deer population.
Selectman Michael Plageman preferred extending hunting through March but eventually came around to the 45-day window.
Members Irene Wrenner and Andy Watts, meanwhile, didn’t support the smaller window. Wrenner said visibility only increases during the winter months and she saw no reason not to extend the shooting window beyond deer season. Watts added he was “dismayed” to see members “back away” from their previous proposal: “I don’t understand what’s changed,” he said.
Sopchak explained she was originally unsure about hunting season dates but came around to the tightened window once realizing deer season overlaps with several others. She added she was at Indian Brook Park last weekend and saw how crowded it is this time of year.
Plageman noted weapons used after deer-hunting season generally have a much shorter range than the rifles used during it. But Sopchak said the type of gun matters less than the perception of those who feel unsafe at the parks when they hear gunshots.
“It’s frightening,” she said. “From a safety perspective, to make our residents think they can recreate without a concern for their safety, limiting to deer season and doing proper signage would go a long way.”
Residents’ reactions were mixed. Some hunters were thankful the board left off the buffer, like Shaun McCuin, who said he’s shot several deer on his property within that zone – with his back to the park.
“It sounds good, 500-foot buffer, but you’re really affecting some people who are paying pretty good property tax,” McCuin told the board prior to its decision.
But other hunters in attendance thought officials didn’t do enough research and viewed their decision as a knee-jerk”reaction based on emotion, not fact.
Residents who support a tighter restriction, meanwhile, thought the board gave too much.
Mark Redmond pointed to former police Chief Brad LaRose’s 2016 report, which recommends no shooting within these town-owned properties. Reading from a portion of the report, Redmond shared LaRose’s warning that the town’s increasing population makes for a higher likelihood of a shooting-related accident.
“I thought Brad LaRose was a good police chief,” Redmond said. “I believed in him. I trusted him. If this is what he’s recommending, I think you should follow it.”
Officials did find some support from lifelong hunter John Diego, who empathized with the board’s difficult task.
He recounted several shooting-related incidents that impacted his family, including his nephew in Vergennes, who found a bullet enter his house from three-quarters of a mile away, and said that accidents indeed happen. He asked the crowd to keep that in mind when considering the changes.
“We don’t want to make a change and then something else happen that we could have prevented,” Diego said.
Monday night’s meeting was a paltry affair compared to previous meetings on the shooting ordinance. But one exchange near the end showed some discontent remains. Moments after closing the public comment portion, Levy warned that he doesn’t want anyone to think they they’re safe: There’s still risk involved no matter what changes the board makes, he said.
“This is by no means a guarantee of anyone’s safety,” he said.
“That’s a bit inflammatory,” responded resident Tim Fagnant, a hunter. When Levy tried to explain himself further, Fagnant stood up and said, “I’ve had enough.”
He pushed in his chair and walked out of the room.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the selectboard’s stance on shooting at the Essex Tree Farm, and selectwoman Irene Wrenner’s position on limiting the window to deer season.