FALMOUTH — The Falmouth Rod & Gun Club has temporarily closed all four of its shooting ranges after safety problems were discovered during recent town inspections of the facility.
The shutdown comes after several neighbors complained that the club’s rifle, trap and pistol ranges, which were built by the U.S. military in the 1940s, are unsafe, and after police determined the club has been operating without a permit since the mid-1990s.
Code Enforcement Officer Justin Brown first did an inspection of the 293 Gray Road property in November 2010, and determined that one of the shooting ranges had “serious safety concerns” and had to be closed.
Brown also found safety issues with one of the pistol ranges and determined that it had to be closed until barriers were erected to protect neighbors’ property.
“At this point, we’re working with them,” Brown said. “We’d rather work with them than against them.”
Falmouth Police Sgt. Frank Soule, a certified firearms trainer, accompanied Brown and confirmed the safety problems.
“I could see that some of the neighbors’ complaints were valid,” Soule said.
After being contacted by a reporter, club President David Ennis released a lengthy statement late Tuesday, which made only passing mention of the safety concerns.
“The use of the property for firearms shooting ranges, archery, and the promotion of outdoor activities has continued since (the club opened in 1949) with an excellent safety record. Safety always has been and will continue to be of the utmost concern to the Club,” the statement said.
Most of Ennis’ response discussed zoning and permitting disputes the club has had with the town.
The Police Department issues permits for all shooting ranges in town, including small ranges some residents have behind their homes, Soule said. The Falmouth Rod & Gun Club has not had a permit since 1995.
“It really slipped through the cracks,” Soule said.
Soule said that after there was a police chief change in 1995, the department was under the incorrect impression that the club was grandfathered and did not need a permit.
“When we got the complaints from the neighbors, we went digging and we realized they do need a permit,” he said.
Brown, who started working for Falmouth in 2006 and took over when former Code Enforcement Officer Al Farris left last year, said he did not have a good answer for why this issue had lingered as long as it has.
“There’s been a number of calls and emails (from neighbors) over the past decade that have probably not been documented as well as they should have been,” Brown said. “I looked over this with a fresh set of eyes and saw some issues.”
The club appealed Brown’s decision to close two of the club’s ranges in January, claiming in a document that its ranges were grandfathered and did not need permits or have to meet the requirements of the town ordinance.
“The Club has produced significant proof regarding those uses that predate the adoption of the ordinances in question,” Ennis said in the statement. “We believe that the Town is now satisfied that those uses have been more than adequately demonstrated.”
However, the club voluntarily closed down after a subsequent inspection in mid-March by Soule and Brown found additional safety violations.
There is also some debate about whether the entire property is grandfathered as a non-conforming use under the town’s land use ordinance, or if only portions of it are allowed.
In the latest Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine newsletter, the club appealed to anyone “who can remember the range being in use prior to 1965,” the year after the ordinance was put in place.
“Their explanation for how the ranges were set up made sense,” Brown said. “They submitted a lot of testimony that the ranges had been there (prior to 1965).”
Brown said he now believes all four of the existing ranges are legal non-conforming uses of the property. However, the ranges must be inspected and determined to be safe before the town will issue permits.
Soule said from now on, the four ranges will be issued permits separately, rather than a single permit for the property.
“They’ve been super cooperative,” Soule said. “Our goal is not to shut down the rod and gun club. Our goal is to make sure the rod and gun club operates safely.”
According to a town ordinance, non-compliance carries a fine of $100 per day per violation.
Brown said the club would not have to pay the fines if it continued to work with the town to fix the safety issues.
While Soule said he wasn’t sure how many complaints the department had received, the club’s neighbors have been complaining about the property since 2002, when a 50-yard pistol range was proposed.
The issue went before the Zoning Board of Appeals in the spring of 2002 and several neighbors brought up safety concerns.
“The real problems started in 2001,” said Jack Kelly, whose property on Sulky Way, where he has lived since 1973, abuts the range. “They built a new range. They weren’t supposed to be using it, but they used it sporadically.”
The zoning board ultimately denied construction of the new pistol range, although the four existing ranges continued to be used.
Kelly’s son, Todd Kelly, a parent of two toddlers who also lives on Sulky Way, said one of the two pistol ranges is 150 feet from his property line and a rifle range is 100 feet away.
Todd Kelly said that in April 2008, he and his father found bullets lodged in a tree on Todd’s property.
“Those bullets had to cross the snowmobile trail to get to my property,” he said.
The snowmobile trail runs along the club’s property and the Kelly’s property and over to town-owned land.
“I sent an email in 2007 (to then-Town Councilor David Libby) saying it was unsafe,” Jack Kelly said. “They didn’t do anything about it. Then we found the bullets in 2008.”
Jack Kelly called the police on April 11, 2008, to report the bullets. In the police report of the investigation, Officer Wayne Geyer confirmed Kelly’s report, stating that “it was apparent that the shots came from the rifle range area/shooting line, which was clearly visible from where we stood.”
“We don’t want to shut the place down,” Todd Kelly said. “We just want it to be safe.”
Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Executive Director Matt Dunlap said many shooting ranges are receiving complaints from neighbors as the state sees more development.
“We’re very supportive of the Falmouth (Rod & Gun) Club,” Dunlap said. “They’ve been there a long time. They’re a good club.”
The Police Department utilized the club’s range for training until about a year ago, when it switched to a range in Scarborough.
“We changed because there wasn’t enough room at the lower pistol range for what we needed,” Soule said, adding that the lower pistol range was one of the safest ranges and that the Police Department had not detected problems with it.
Soule said he will inspect each range after the club makes changes, such as increased berm height, to improve safety, and that he will issue new permits for each range as they come into compliance.