Cape Elizabeth gun club argues against paying taxes

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CAPE ELIZABETH — A gun club that has come under scrutiny in recent years from those worried about noise and shot containment is facing another round of fire from town officials.

The Board of Assessment Review could meet as soon as this month on the question of whether the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club, which has historically been exempt from paying property taxes, is actually a taxable entity.

After a review of town records and statutes governing tax exemptions, Assessor Matt Sturgis determined the club should be paying taxes on its 21-acre Sawyer Road property.

Tammy Walter, president of the club, said  her organization has appealed Sturgis’ finding. The appeal will require a hearing before the Board of Assessment Review.

At the hearing, Sturgis said, it will be the board’s job to decide whether he is correct in his finding that because the gun club is neither a charitable organization nor a fraternal organization, nor one that makes significant contributions to literary or scientific advancement, it doesn’t qualify for a tax exemption.

Sturgis said this week that his finding doesn’t mean the gun club “doesn’t do a lot of really good things,” such as sponsoring competitions, mentoring young shooters, and holding educational programs.

He has not yet done a formal valuation of the gun club property, but estimated that the 2017 property tax bill could be somewhere in the $4,000 range. Sturgis also said he would not be seeking back taxes from the 7-decade-old club.

Meanwhile, in its letter of appeal, the club make a hardship argument, saying it can’t afford to pay property taxes based on the amount of money coming in and the amount of money it has spent trying to bring the club’s shooting ranges up to standard.

Right now, only the club’s 25-yard range is open, while the 50- and 100-yard ranges remain closed pending further improvements, particularly for shot containment and noise abatement.

The gun club said it has spent more than $109,000 to bring the 25-yard range online, and the money to do that mostly came from fundraising, grants and the use of savings.

Now, the appeal states, the club is out of savings and so far this year it has brought in less than $9,800 in membership dues. With all of its ranges shut at one point, the letter says, the gun club lost a significant number of members; if it can’t get the longer ranges open, it said, it won’t be able to bring them back.

In addition, the club has also had to pay an increased insurance fee and another $915 for an environmental study. The club lays both of these unexpected costs at the feet of neighbors it says are trying to have the shooting range permanently closed.

Mostly due to concerns raised by neighbors in the Cross Hill subdivision, last March Cape Elizabeth passed its first-ever gun range ordinance, which closely regulates the operation of shooting ranges in town.

According to the appeal letter, under that new ordinance the club is now subject to “standards higher than any other outdoor range in the state.”

“The Spurwink Rod and Gun Club will not be whole until all three ranges are open again,” the letter states. “(And) we will not have the membership, and thus the dues income, we had in 2015 until we can reopen all three ranges.”

The issue, the letter says, is that “the cost to open the 50- and 100-(yard ranges) will each be more than the 25 as they are both longer and the baffling (required) is more complex.”

For all these reasons, the letter says, the club “seeks an abatement of property taxes due to poverty caused by the tremendous cost required to bring us (up) to the standards required by ordinance.”

But Sturgis said the abatement issue is separate from the question of whether the gun club is a taxable entity. So while the Board of Assessment Review “may feel badly for the club” because of all its expenses, that will not carry any weight on the issue of whether the club is tax exempt.

On that subject, the appeal letter argues that the club “has historically been a tax exempt organization in Cape Elizabeth, (under) regulations (that) provide tax exempt status for organizations ‘… fostering national and international amateur sports competition.’”

In its appeal letter, the gun club says it has sponsored shooting teams in the past that competed in nationally sanctioned shooting competitions, including a junior shooting team, which sent five of its members to the nationals last year, two of whom went on to the Olympic trials.

However, because the longer ranges are closed, that team “is now forced to shoot in Scarborough,” the letter states.

Sturgis said the hardship contention will have to be decided at the Town Council level, but the council will not be able to take up the issue unless and until the gun club is issued a tax bill.

A member of the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club in Cape Elizabeth shoots at the newly re-opened 25-yard range.