UPDATE: Town will mediate, may regulate, in ongoing clash between Cape Elizabeth gun club, neighbors
CAPE ELIZABETH — The town has hired a lawyer to mediate a long-running dispute between a gun club and its neighbors, and to draft an ordinance for the Town Council to review.
During a Town Council meeting Monday, Sept. 9, the council unanimously approved a proposal to hire Portland attorney Ken Cole to meet with residents of the Cross Hill Neighborhood and members of the Spurwink Road and Gun Club to find a compromise that may include a draft ordinance.
Cole, who was recently hired by the town to compile a report on the issue, will submit his recommendation to the council by Dec. 2.
The council's decision punctuated a flurry of recent discussions about the shooting range, which has operated at its Sawyer Road location since the early 1960s.
On Sept. 5, the council held a two-hour workshop that included the forced recusal of a councilor and a wide-ranging, and sometimes contentious, public comment period about the gun club and whether it is a nuisance and safety hazard to its neighbors.
Then, on Sept. 8, five members of the Cross Hill neighborhood took a tour of the shooting range to see the club's efforts at noise control and safety enhancement.
About 100 people packed the council chambers for the Sept. 5 workshop, filling all available seats and part of the mezzanine.
The evening began with the forced recusal of Councilor Jamie Wagner – an attorney who last year represented a resident of the Cross Hill neighborhood against the gun club before he took office in December.
Wagner argued that he was divested of any interest and could serve as an impartial voice in the discussion. But that wasn't enough for Councilors David Sherman, Jessica Sullivan, Kathy Ray and Jim Walsh, who argued that Wagner's former role in the dispute could be perceived as a conflict and imperil the legitimacy of the eventual outcome.
The council voted 4-2 to recuse Wagner, who then watched the meeting from the front row as a member of the audience.
With that business aside, the workshop began in earnest with Cole sharing his legal analysis of the issue. Cole had been hired by the town in June to look into the dispute and see if the town had any rights or responsibilities to manage it.
Cole found that state and federal laws offer clear protections to shooting ranges. And, because the shooting range first appeared at 1250 Sawyer Road around 1960 – about 30 years before the Cross Hill neighborhood was developed – the site is grandfathered.
There is, however, some wiggle room for municipalities to establish regulations if there is strong justification, Cole said.
Next, Cross Hill representative Kathy Kline and gun club President Mark Mayone provided an update on their strained relations. The two sides have met occasionally, as recently as this summer, but nothing has been effective, Kline argued.
"Honestly, I don't feel like a lot has gotten done," she said.
For example, the neighborhood asked the gun club to hire an independent third party to conduct a safety review of the range. The gun club hired a National Rifle Association-affiliated surveyor, which didn't meet the neighborhood's standard for impartiality, Kline said. Also, the club won't share the results of that analysis.
Mayone said the club passed the safety inspection, but he is wary of sharing the report because the club doesn't trust that everyone in the neighborhood is approaching the dispute with cooperative intent.
In terms of addressing noise and safety issues, Mayone said the club has added sound insulation, and fencing and signs, to keep neighbors from accidentally entering the firing range.
"We've spent a considerable amount of money in the last month," he said.
For the next hour, the council heard first-hand accounts from neighbors and club members on a wide variety of perceptions and accusations, including two residents who said their homes were struck by errant bullets from the range – claims that the gun club denies and the police haven't validated.
The most discussed issue, however, was whether shooting at the club has increased significantly within the past year or so. Many neighbors said use has surged, while long-time members of the club argued that use has diminished during its 60-year history.
Tom Brady, a 12-year resident of Cross Hill, said the noise was insignificant for many years.
"But that changed. The use has become significant to the point where it's disruptive," he said. "I can't enjoy my life in my backyard. I get woken up on occasion. And it's a definite change.
"If it was anything else (besides guns), even a knitting club, that was making that kind of noise, we would have regulated it already," Brady said. "It's really unacceptable at this point."
That sentiment was echoed by Steve Parkhurst, who developed the neighborhood.
"I can honestly say, having been there at the very beginning in 1999 until present day, there has been a dramatic, and I mean dramatic, change in the noise level at the gun club," Parkhurst said. "It was never, never an issue from the year 2000 until ... last year."
Parkhurst said it sounds like one or more people use assault rifles at the range and "they're blowing off a lot of shells."
Tammy Walter, who lives about a mile from the shooting range and has been a member for about a year, disagreed that the noise level has increased.
"I decided to become a member because I heard about the Cross Hill neighborhood trying to shut the gun club down and I thought, 'This is bullsh-t,'" she said. "I have lived in my house for 18 years and I can hear guns – I can hear them fire – and it has never changed."
Andy Tabor said he also has a long view of the area and the gun club.
"I've lived here for over 50 years; I've been a rod and gun club member for over 30 years. I'm a past president of the rod and gun club," he said. "There has been no expansion of use. If anything, we've cut back.
"I don't know how anybody can say the use has increased. It's exactly the same club, and it's been used in exactly the same way for the last 60 years. The changes that we're putting in now are all to be pro-active to either eliminate noise or add safety."
At the close of the public comment period, Town Manager Michael McGovern suggested that the council should hire Cole to mediate the situation, an approach that the council seemed to favor.
Ray said she welcomed the suggestion, because the council would have been hard-pressed to reach a decision based on the public comments.
"When you listen to everybody, you hear opinions that are all over the place," Ray said. "We've heard everything from A to Z, so there's no decision we could make without having some kind of mediation."
Open house at the gun range
The parking lot at Spurwink Rod and Gun Club featured a curious mix of imported sedans and domestic pickup trucks on Sunday, when five residents of the Cross Hill neighborhood visited the shooting range for an open house.
Mayone gave a tour of the facilities to draw attention to a number of recent projects that are intended to reduce noise and improve safety, including the construction of a new concrete wall, installation of sound insulation on the floor and walls of a shooting shed and more.
The meeting was cordial and both parties said it was a positive step toward re-establishing talks, which had deteriorated over the summer.
Mayone said the he was pleased by the conversation, but he was disappointed by the low turnout. During the workshop last week, Mayone invited everyone.
"I wish we had more people," he said Sunday. "We're doing so much, so fast, that I wish we had more people here to see all that we've accomplished."
Nonetheless, Mayone said he is optimistic.
"These are exactly the kind of folks that the club hopes to work with. They're reasonable people and obviously intelligent. They're letting us talk to them and they're giving us good input. I really can't ask for more than that. If we just keep putting our heads together, we'll come up with something that works," Mayone said.
Cross Hill neigborhood residents Chase and Steve Malter agreed the open house was a step in the right direction.
"Like anything else, if you understand the other side, it's easier to get to a solution," Malter said.
Compromise is the also the most practical approach, but some neighbors are interested in trying to shut the club down, he said.
"For those who want to get rid of the club, it's never going to happen," Malter said. "You've got to find something that will work for both sides, a way to co-exist.
Malter added that he respects the club's efforts to lessen the noise, but the recent projects have only increased the volume at his home, he said. The concrete wall, for instance, has only served to channel and intensify the sound.
Mayone said the cost of the recent projects constitute about 70 percent of the club's revenue for the year.