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Haywood commissioners take a pass on shooting range controversy

fr franciscoveHaywood County commissioners aren’t likely to intervene in the controversy over a proposed indoor firing range and gun store coming to the Francis Farm community, despite pleas for help from the residents.

“I hope that the commissioners will have some way to help us out,” said Mark Palmer, an old-timer whose farm and homeplace neighbors the proposed shooting range. Palmer was one of several residents who appealed to county commissioners this week.

“I ask you to drive down Francis Farm and picture a gun range in our neighborhood and ask yourself ‘Does this make sense?’” Susan Kirkman said to commissioners during a county meeting Monday.

While commissioners seemed sympathetic to the Francis Farm residents, they are unwilling to quash the plan, since doing so would be a sudden about-face that runs counter to the long-standing lack of land-use regulations.

“I think a knee-jerk reaction would be government overreach,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said. “You can’t pick winners and losers in the absence of an overall land-use plan. You can’t have land-use planning by reaction.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick agreed.

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“I feel for the residents but I also feel it is not fair to single out a landowner when they are utilizing their property within the bounds of our present laws and ordinances,” Kirkpatrick said.

Swanger noted this is the second time in two months community members have asked commissioners to swoop in and stop a project that seemed incompatible to the larger neighborhood.

“Perhaps this raises a larger issue. What we are all talking about is land-use regulations — what can take place where,” Swanger said. “People said ‘I understand the need for a firing range, but it shouldn’t take place here.’ It’s about finding balance of what can be where.”

However, a piecemeal approach that selectively targets individual projects as they crop up isn’t the way to go about it, Swanger and Kirkpatrick said.

Commissioner Mike Sorrells was even less open to protecting the character of the Francis Farm community, describing himself as a “private property rights kind of guy.”

“I am a little bit skeptical of jumping into the middle of that thing,” Sorrells said.

Swanger admitted that he wouldn’t like an indoor shooting range to open beside his house, however.

“I wouldn’t want it in my backyard and there are lots of other things I wouldn’t want in my backyard,” said Swanger, who lives in rural Fines Creek.

A Dollar General store would be just a detrimental to rural peace and tranquility as an indoor firing range, for example, Swanger said.

“If you want to preserve that, you have to engage in a dialogue about land-use planning,” Swanger said. “Maybe there needs to be regulations, but that is an issue for another day.” 

Kirkpatrick said he, too, isn’t against the idea of a larger discussion about zoning if it included a cross-section of the general public and people were aware that it was on the agenda.


Ticking clock

The residents of Francis Farm don’t have the luxury of time, however. By the time a thoughtful dialogue on land-use planning played out, it would likely be too late to stop the indoor firing range.

Any day now, a building permit application for the shooting range could be filed. And once the permit application is filed, it would be a done deal.

If a project complies with zoning rules on the books at the time a permit application is filed, the county would be legally obligated to issue the permit, explained Adam Lovelady, a zoning expert with the UNC School of Government at Chapel Hill. 

Rules that come along later don’t apply — only those in place at the time the paperwork was submitted, Lovelady said. A state statute passed by the General Assembly last year prevents new zoning rules from being applied to a project mid-stream in the permitting process, Lovelady said.

Presently there aren’t any zoning rules that would preclude a shooting range from cropping up anywhere in the county someone wanted to put one.

However, Jule Morrow, the man behind the shooting range, hasn’t applied for a building permit yet.  That could change any day, but as of now, there’s still time for the county to stop it if commissioners chose to.

Commissioners could use the tool of a moratorium to place a temporary hold on firing ranges for up to 60 days, buying the commissioners time to figure out what they wanted to do.

But it would have to be done quickly, because as soon as a building permit is applied for, it would be too late.

County officials initially weren’t sure exactly what options were at their disposal when the shooting range was discussed at the commissioners meeting Monday. Even if they wanted to intervene, could they? And if so, how?

“What lawful actions exist?” Swanger asked County Attorney Chip Killian after hearing from the Francis Farm residents at the meeting.

Killian said without zoning already in place, he wasn’t sure what moves the county might have at its disposal.

“So you aren’t aware of any statutory authority we would have in this case?” Kirkpatrick asked Killian.

“We might … I would have to do some research. I was saying as far as ordinances we have now,” Killian answered.

Several residents who spoke at the county meeting hoped commissioners could simply veto the building permit. But commissioners explained that they don’t have authority to vote building permits up or down. “There is nothing we can say ‘yah’ or ‘nay’ on. Anything we would do is something that is a proactive effort,” Kirkpatrick said.

Their only recourse would be to write a general land-use policy governing shooting ranges, which could then be applied to this instance as well as any others.

“We are going to research it to see what can be done to regulate or prevent such a facility, if the board chooses to do that, what options are available,” Killian said after the meeting.

Neither county officials nor Francis Farm residents were fully aware, however, that any action they might want to take would have to be done rapidly, before a building permit gets filed. 

That’s a moot point now anyway, since commissioners aren’t in favor of using a moratorium to block the shooting range.

“In my opinion if we used this option of a moratorium we would be abusing our power,” Swanger said.

Kirkpatrick likewise said he was “not expeditiously moved” to pass a moratorium on the fly given the county’s precedent of no zoning. Kirkpatrick harkened back to the contentious debate over countywide land-use planning in the 1990s when zoning was shot down by the public.

The memory of the raucous land-use planning debates two decades ago have died hard. At the very mention of zoning during the commissioner’s meeting Monday, County Attorney Chip Killian readily conjured up the failed attempt 20 years ago.

“We all know we have no zoning ordinance in Haywood County,” Killian said. “The last time I remember it being a standing room only hearing in this county was the last time we talked about zoning. So we don’t have any zoning in this county.”

But Swanger pointed out that public sentiment may have changed.

“Again, that was almost 20 years ago. The county has changed I am sure in the past 20 years. Maybe it is time for that discussion again,” Swanger said.

Bruce Bowen, a resident of Francis Farm, said it isn’t the community’s fault that the county has failed to put land-use rules in place, and the commissioners shouldn’t use that as a cop-out.

“You are talking about dropping a commercial building into a beautiful residential farming community that people have spent their blood, sweat and tears maintaining for generations,” Bowen said. “The county is getting the reputation of ‘Oh you can do whatever you want.’ It is not a fair thing. We have to have guidelines for people to follow. It is important. You are going to hurt a community.”

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