Dispute boils down to distance, decibels

Noise, safety at crux of shooting lane controversy
By Fran Gonzalez | Nov 30, 2018
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Arne Smith, right, explains targets and distances during a site visit to his home by the Montville Planning Board Nov. 19. Smith shoots from the second-story deck off his garage, pictured here, to an 800-yard lane he has cleared on his property.

Montville — Planning Board Chairman Peter Kassen minced no words at the start of the Nov. 14 meeting dealing with a pre-application for a shooting range. This "is not about the Second Amendment," he said, "it's about a town ordinance" and a chance to have an informal discussion to answer questions from both sides.

Approximately 25 people packed a meeting room in the Town Office, along with attorney Peter W. Drum representing Arne Smith, a landowner who cleared an 800-yard lane on his property for target shooting that has raised the ire of his neighbors.

Drum described his client, who also spoke during the meeting, as a "marine marksman" and a "professional instructor" with a high level of training. He said Smith's shooting lane — referred to interchangeably as a shooting range — is purely residential and is an activity he's done for most of his life.

He said Smith mostly uses a manually operated .308 rifle which is a standard hunting firearm. The weapon is equivalent to a deer hunting rifle, Drum said.

"If this (shooting range) does not comply (with the town ordinance), then deer hunters do not comply," he argued. "... Anyone who is hunting deer would be exceeding the ordinance."

Only one section of the Site Plan Review Ordinance applies to the pre-application — noise. The town ordinance limits noise levels.

Planning Board member Kathy Roberts suggested a site visit to Smith's property to "bring a sense of realism to the matter." Kassen agreed and said a decibel reading from the property line should also be conducted along with contacting abutters.

Board member John Twomey argued against a site visit, saying it would only elicit "our own feelings about it. It either scientifically falls below 65 decibels at the boundary line or the line of fire is less than 100 yards, or it's not."

Another board member disagreed and said, "As we work through this very detailed ordinance, I would appreciate the situational awareness of having stood there with Mr. Smith, and have him say this is where it all starts and this is where it ends. It helps to understand."

Ultimately, Monday, Nov. 19, became the mutually agreed-upon date to conduct a site visit and Code Enforcement Officer Bob Temple said he would research "a competent, qualified" sound engineer to conduct a decibel test on the property boundary before the next Planning Board meeting.

Temple said it would be helpful at the site visit to have Smith fire exactly as he would, "so when you hear it there, you will get an idea of decibel level."

Previously the Planning Board had received two letters from abutting residents concerned with noise and safety from Smith's shooting lane, which prompted the chain of events leading to the Nov. 14 Planning Board meeting.

In response to the neighbors' concerns, Temple sent two letters to Smith, alerting him that he was in violation of the town's Site Plan Review Ordinance. The town ordinance states that an application needs to be filled out for "... establishment of a new nonresidential use (of the property) even if no buildings or structures are proposed."

In his reply, Smith said he understood the term "nonresidential" (from the town ordinance) to imply commercial use. He and his attorney continue to argue his shooting range is for personal use.

When it came time for the public to weigh in at the Nov. 14 meeting, sentiment in the room seemed evenly divided between residents who feel it is a respect issue between neighbors, and gun owners who feel rights are being violated.

One resident said chainsaws are much louder than firearms and no one has issues with them.

One woman said she thought people should be allowed to do whatever they want on their own property, "until it negatively affects a neighbor."

"I'm not a big fan of telling people what to do, but people should be respectful to others," she said.

Another resident said a goodwill gesture toward a resolution would be for Smith to cease discharging his firearms while a sound study is completed to definitively and quantitatively show what the decibel levels are.

Smith also was asked about the use of silencers as an option to cut down on noise.

"Generally, you have to do a $200 form. It takes six months; sometimes it can take up to a year because there is a background check involved," he said. "Then, to buy a good one, it would range from $800 to $1,000 or more." And, according to Smith, a silencer does not take away the noise of impacting the target.

One board member asked if there are standards in Maine on how to contain projectiles at shooting ranges.

Drum replied, "I'm sure there is something that the National Rifle Association puts out for commercial ranges. I don't think there is anything they put out for residential ranges."

Smith shoots "a box" containing 20 rounds, Drum said. Smith said he usually shoots 50 rounds when using his pistol.

"It's not an all-day activity. It certainly can comply with the noise standard (of the ordinance) of between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m," Drum said.

According to noise provision within the town's Site Plan Ordinance, the maximum permissible sound level from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. should be less than 65 decibels measured at least 4 feet above ground at the property boundary of the source. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. the maximum allowed sound should be less than 50 decibels, according to the ordinance.

A Yale University study equates the sound of normal conversation to be 60 to 70 decibels and a household refrigerator as being 55 decibels.

Board member Andrew Marshall said, "What I'm hearing is you guys intend to comply with the noise provision part of the ordinance, which is pretty objective, less than 65 decibels during the day and 50 at night, but I also heard (you say) that if this is the rule, then hunting shouldn't be allowed in Montville."

Drum answered, "No, what I said was if Mr. Smith's use is not legal, then hunting is not legal, based on decibels."

A board member said, "That is a false equivalence. If you are deer hunting, you shoot one shot, maybe two."

Kassen added, "Also there's the distance from your abutters as well. I get some of what you are saying, but you have to qualify it by talking about the issues that have to do with time of the day the distance from other people's domicile."

Drum said he didn't disagree with that, "but you are allowed to discharge a firearm within 100 yards of someone's house."

Maine Legislature Article 11209 reads: "...a person may not ...discharge a firearm... or cause a projectile to pass as a result of that discharge within 100 yards of a building or residential dwelling without the permission of the owner..."

An abutter added, "I can stand on my back porch and see Mr. Smith's targets, which are way too close to my house, and he is sending rounds within the 100-yard requirement. ... Everyone is caught up on where the firearm is discharged from but it's also where the projectiles passes through.

"It's definitely a safety issue and it's definitely a noise issue," she said.

To that Kassen replied the town Planning Board is not necessarily in a position to enforce Maine state law. "We have to go to a judge to enforce Maine Legislature laws," he said.

"We may find at the site visit that there are some problems with the distances, but this would be a civil matter, I'm presuming, and not one we (the Planning Board) can preside over.

"If everyone can be patient," Kassen said, "essentially what we're doing is extending the pre-application process by a month. We will revisit two significant items. One is to research information and come to a determination about decibel levels, and the other is to decide which items in this ordinance are going to be waived."

Kassen went on to say one way to address the situation would be to amend the ordinance and come up with standards having to do specifically with shooting ranges. Just as there are standards for septic systems and drainage, there could be standards for berms and distances.

"The town would have to vote on it," he said. "If that were the case, there then could be some safety provisions that were measurable. But until that happens, the board cannot make any findings."

Closing out the meeting, one resident said, "If Mr. Smith was a lumberjack, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

That prompted another resident to reply, "If the lumberjack did saw all day long, 10 hours a day at that kind of decibel level, then, yes, it could be that same situation."

When the group subsequently met Nov. 19 at Smith's property for the site visit, the group split, with half observing Smith shoot from his regular spot and the other half standing near a neighbor's property line.

No official discussion or action took place at the site visit. The next Planning Board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Dec. 12 at the Town Office.

 

Arne Smith, center, shows an armor steel target he uses at his shooting lane, which he says disintegrates the projectile entirely. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Montville Planning Board members head into the woods on their site visit to Arne Smith's shooting lane Nov. 19. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Montville Planning Board member Andrew Marshall sets off to see the abutting neighbor's house Nov. 19, which lies beyond the trees. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
One of Arne Smith's targets in his shooting lane. Behind it lies a pile of trees and debris he uses as a berm. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
(Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Nov 30, 2018 10:43

How often does he change his target?  By the amount of marks on the target doesn't equal the number of shots taken?



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