|Neighbors raise concerns over gun ranges|
|Written by Todd MIshler/Walworth County Sunday|
|Monday, 30 July 2012 07:55|
The Walworth County Sheriff’s Office plans safety improvements for the county-owned range in LaFayette Township, including adding protective covering in the target zone area to the right.
LaFAYETTE TOWNSHIP —They may not be directly in the bull’s-eye, but residents along Hodges Road and County Highway ES say they sometimes feel like they’re unwitting targets in a carnival shooting gallery.
However, the ammunition and their fears are real in this otherwise idyllic area in LaFayette Township.
A daylong barrage at the Walworth County Shooting Range on Hodges Road on June 3 and previous prolonged shooting events at a gunsmith facility called God’s Country Ranch off County ES finally prompted a unified response from landowners.
(Read the complete edition of Walworth County Sunday HERE.)
That in turn led to letters from town officials to the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office and Walworth County Board of Supervisors seeking action, including calls for a potential firearms discharge ordinance in the county and restricting hours at the county-owned range.
Although noise is a big problem, especially with weekend usage, homeowners say that making the neighborhood safer is by far the most important issue.
Their concerns about the range are related to dozens of rounds of ammunition that have escaped — primarily from ricocheting off targets — and landed in driveways and yards across the road, as well as stray bullets that have entered or crossed properties adjacent to God’s Country.
Town of LaFayette Supervisor Judy O’Donell, who has lived on Hodges Road for 18 years, said it simply came to a point that something had to be done.
“We’ve heard slugs pinging off the roof of the building that the snowmobile club uses,” she said of the property directly north of the range’s outdoor targets, “the Johnsons have collected all kinds of casings and slugs on their property, and I’ve seen them and heard them whiz over my head because I walk along this road all of the time. So, we decided it was time to bring this to somebody’s attention, to talk about the excessive noise, but mainly from a safety perspective.”
Rob Johnson and his wife, Marcy, are ex-Marines. Rob served for 28 years and Marcy for 22. He managed shooting ranges during his time in the service and questions the types of weaponry being used at both properties.
“It’s mainly in the spring and fall, but sometimes it’s nonstop shooting all day long. Some days I feel like I’m back in Fallujah,” said Johnson, who served in Iraq. “I’ve been collecting lead from my yard and driveway for the last five years and took a 5-pound jar of it down to the sheriff’s office, so we’re not making this up. People are shooting semiautomatic or automatic weapons that I don’t think this range is qualified to handle. And I’m not sure why they’re using steel targets, because we never used them in my 28 years. The berms at this range weren’t set up to handle high-velocity ammunition like what’s being used here.”
To help alleviate people’s concerns, the sheriff’s office, which trains at and operates the range, has committed to eliminating as much Saturday afternoon and Sunday usage as possible. It also has requested funding in the 2013 budget for remodeling at the site, including raising the height of the roadside berm and adding protective covering in the target zone area to address the ricochet issue, a project that could cost an estimated $1.3 million.
“Noise is noise, but we’re going to take every measure possible to make this range more safe, which is our No. 1 concern,” Sheriff David Graves said.
Lt. Jamie Green has been with the department since 2000 and took over the responsibility of scheduling and tracking range usage in January 2011. Groups that regularly use the range include other law enforcement agencies, the Elkhorn Pistol Club, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the 4-H shooting-sports program.
He said that the sheriff’s office, especially since these issues have been brought to light, does its best to police itself and others at the range built in the mid-1970s.
“If they have a concern, we want them to contact us,” Green said. “We’re going to do everything we can to eliminate the possibility that anything that escapes the range isn’t from us. I’ll be getting copies of all the agencies’ lesson plans to make sure they have certified instructors and what they’re doing here. We’re accommodating them as much as possible on weekend usage, but we’re required to do low-light training, so restricting it from 9 to 5 isn’t realistic. But we will be increasing the height of the east side berm, planting trees and doing whatever we can for safety purposes and because we want to be a good neighbor.”
Walworth County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Nancy Russell agreed that positive steps are taking place.
“The sheriff's department really is trying to be sensitive to their neighbors out there, and my impression is that they'll definitely not have any shooting at the range on Sundays,” Russell said.
O’Donell said that she and other residents are happy about the sheriff’s office’s efforts so far in an area that also includes two pieces of public hunting land.
“We truly appreciate that they’ve been willing to meet and talk about our concerns,” O’Donell said. “They have shown genuine concern and a willingness to cooperate. We as property owners wanted to know if we could get something done concerning hours of operation and what kinds of weapons people can shoot, and we’re happy with what’s going on because we’re working on these things together. It’s a good thing to have open discussions, so we should be able to resolve some of these issues.”
Local ordinance considered
LaFayette isn’t the only township grappling with how to prevent wayward ammunition.
In nearby Walworth Township, officials are considering an ordinance to regulate practice shooting after an incident right before Christmas in which a property owner was target shooting when one of his shots went through a window and into the bedroom of a 10-year-old girl.
Town Supervisor Bill Martin said local officials are determined to get something done sooner than later.
“We’re working on an ordinance that would limit shooting in more highly populated areas, what we call red zone areas. Basically it would eliminate pretty much anything more powerful than a BB gun.
“We’re getting the paperwork ready and will get copies to the DNR to make sure that we’re not infringing on hunting laws and a copy to our attorney to make sure everything is OK,” Martin added. “We would like everything to be ready by August or September. It’s a matter of common sense. I mean, when you look at where they were shooting at the target, the house is straight behind it. We want to have something in place before a tragedy happens.”
That’s exactly what folks such as O’Donell are hoping to prevent, saying in her letter to the county board that she thought it was ironic that “the town has an ordinance that we cannot shoot fireworks off in our yards, but (it’s) OK to shoot machine guns.”
Those comments were made in reference to what residents allege is going on at God’s Country, such as the use of military-grade weapons and assault vehicles to play what they describe as war games.
Johnson said he understands why his neighbors are nervous.
“I’m not in the impact area for whatever this guy is doing, and even though he only seems to do it around holidays, it sounds to me like he’s out of control,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard all kinds of crazy things.”
God’s Country owner Augie Fabela obtained a conditional use permit for a gunsmith shop on his 300-acre property in April 2008.
But residents say that what goes on there goes way beyond what the permit allows. However, Fabela’s attorney, Frank Lettenberger, said his client is using and enjoying his land peacefully.
“At the end of the day, Mr. Fabela is a good man and is willing to sit down and talk,” Lettenberger said of their upcoming meeting with Michael Cotter, director of Walworth County’s Land Use and Resource Management Department.
“Unfortunately, all of the stuff going on with the range and everything is spilling over to my client,” Lettenberger said. “My understanding is that this is a vocal minority of residents. But Mr. Fabela is doing everything safely and legally.”
Cotter said that if the county had a firearms discharge ordinance, conditional use permits could include restrictions concerning activity type, hours/days, charging fees, etc., and then be able to stop activities that didn’t comply.
“The issue is what they’re actually doing out there,” Cotter said. “I’ve heard all kinds of things, and that it goes way beyond somebody sighting in their rifles, and that’s why we’re involved. I’ve heard he has a helicopter, which would require a conditional use permit because he’d need a helipad, and the night sky lighting up.
“But to his credit, they’re going to sit down with me,” Cotter added. “One big thing would be to give people in that neighborhood some certainty, whether it’s knowing what will be used, for how long or when. But my mission and goal is safety, then to see that property owners get to do what they want on their land, within reason.”
O’Donell said that’s pretty much what she and others are looking for.
“We understand that the range was here first and that people want to do certain things on their own land, but safety is the No. 1 issue,” O’Donell said. “My husband hunts and my sons did their hunter’s safety classes at this range. But it’s the excessive and all-day shooting we’re talking about. We don’t want anybody’s pets or kids to get hurt. I’m probably not the most popular person around here, but I believe this process has been a positive thing.”
|Last Updated on Monday, 30 July 2012 08:02|