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Haywood mulls rules on outdoor shooting ranges

fr shootingrangeOutdoor shooting ranges could soon be under the microscope in Haywood County.

County commissioners have signaled tentative support for rules on where outdoor shooting ranges should be allowed and what safety precautions should be required. 

“This is not a gun rights issue, it is a public safety issue. I don’t think anyone would want an outdoor range next to a school, for example. That is not reasonable,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the proximity of an outdoor shooting range to a church is another concern that should be addressed in an ordinance.

“These little country churches out in rural areas, you could have a shooting range right next to you shooting while you are trying to worship on Sunday morning,” Ensley said. “There is nothing to stop them.”

Ensley said there should also be safeguards in place to ensure outdoor shooting ranges are properly constructed to contain lead contamination and stray bullets.

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It would take time to craft an ordinance on outdoor shooting ranges, to vet it with the public and to get it passed, however.

In the meantime, commissioners are considering a moratorium as a stopgap measure. A moratorium would prevent an outdoor shooting range from cropping up while the county develops an ordinance.

“The purpose of a moratorium is to thoughtfully and reasonably assess what should be done regarding public safety for an outdoor firing range,” Swanger said. 

County commissioners held a public hearing Monday on whether to impose a 60-day moratorium on outdoor shooting ranges.

SEE ALSO: Deputies intervene during tense moment at shooting range hearing

One speaker questioned why the county would waste time talking about it when there’s no indication that an outdoor shooting range is actually on the horizon anywhere in the county.

“We have a moratorium to write an ordinance to regulate something that has not even been proposed,” said Paul Yeager. “It looks like a solution in search of a problem. We are spending all this time on something that has not yet been proposed.”

But once a shooting range has actually been proposed, it would be too late, explained Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. Any ordinance written after the fact wouldn’t retroactively apply, he said.

“Once someone makes an application, that application would be grandfathered in, and there wouldn’t be anything you could do,” Kirkpatrick said. “You are in a Catch 22. If you don’t talk about it, and someone makes an application, it is too late to do something about it.”

Turnout was much sparser than expected at this week’s public hearing on the moratorium — given the dual hot-button issues of guns and limits on private property. 

Fewer than a dozen people were at the hearing in opposition to the shooting range moratorium, and of the paltry showing, only a few actually spoke.

“I am totally against this moratorium,” said Andrew Jackson, who cited the importance of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

But those who spoke in favor of an outdoor shooting range moratorium said they weren’t trying to take anyone’s guns away.

“This is not about Constitutional rights,” said Vicki Rogers. “It is about safety.”

Lisa Nelson, a retired teacher who spoke at the hearing, said communities need to be protected from an outdoor shooting range that’s too close to homes or schools.

 “This is not something against hunters and gun rights,” Nelson said. “We speak without malice, without anger.”

Supporters of an outdoor shooting range moratorium hailed entirely from the Francis Farm community, a rural pastoral enclave on the outskirts of Waynesville.

The community learned six weeks ago that one of their neighbors planned to build a massive indoor shooting range and gun store in their midst.

Residents of the Francis Farm area quickly mobilized against it, appearing before commissioners twice in January to ask them to protect the peaceful character of their community from such an intrusion.

Commissioners sympathized, but were unwilling to take up the issue of indoor gun ranges absent a larger dialogue on countywide land-use planning.

However, commissioners said the inherent safety risks of an outdoor shooting range — which Francis Farm residents fear might also be in the cards — warranted consideration.

Jule Morrow, the man who plans to build an indoor shooting and gun store in the Francis Farm community, countered the rumor that he is planning an outdoor range.

Morrow said he only intends to build an indoor one.

“I do not know how I can say it any simpler or any clearer,” Morrow said at the public hearing this week.

On the subject of outdoor shooting ranges, Morrow actually came down in favor of an ordinance.

“The county needs to get on this. Sooner or later there will be some commercial outdoor ranges that come to our area,” Morrow said.

Morrow itemized four specific regulations he believes should be included in an outdoor shooting range ordinance: a backstop to contain bullets and lead contamination, deflectors or baffles along the sides of the firing line, video surveillance and a range manager on duty whenever shooting is going on.

A nearby resident said there’s no guarantee other than Morrow’s word that he won’t build an outdoor range at some point, however.

“He says he is not going to build an outdoor range, but what would stop him in the future from doing such a thing?” asked Ron Sikula. “The possibility of an outdoor range in that area is very dangerous because of the flight of the bullets.”

Josie Rathbone, another nearby resident, agreed.

“I am here as a parent. I don’t want to have my child outside wondering where a stray bullet is going to go,” Rathbone said.

The Francis Farm site is a mile from a school and youth ball fields, well within range of a stray bullet from a high-caliber weapon, she said.

County commissioners didn’t vote on whether to enact a moratorium this week, instead deferring a vote until their meeting two weeks from now, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15. There will be another opportunity for public comment at that meeting before they vote.

While commissioners seem likely to go forward with a moratorium, the real work is yet to come in the crafting of an outdoor shooting range ordinance.

The county will only have a 60-day window to develop an ordinance. By state statute, a moratorium is limited to 60 days. A public hearing would be held on the language of an ordinance before it is adopted.

Commissioners emphasized that any ordinance would not apply to individuals, hunting clubs or just a group of guys getting together to shoot on their property. 

“What we are talking about is a commercial, outdoor shooting range — if someone pays a fee to come shoot,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said.

Commissioner Mike Sorrells said he’s gotten a lot of calls from people asking that very question.

“They were concerned about being able to go out in your own backyard and on your own property and shoot your own gun. When I explained it, everybody seemed supportive of what we were trying to do,” Sorrells said.

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