Features — 01 October 2012

Lessons Learned by a Range Developer

Trouble has its place even in a gun-friendly locale

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By Andy Massimilian

This is my account as manager of Ransom Recreation Shooting Sports LLC of developing a commercial range that could easily be a story line from a grade B movie. Unfortunately, as you are about to find out, reality can be more absurd than fiction.

My company was looking to open a public outdoor shooting range in northeastern Pennsylvania, and after several years of searching found land in Ransom Township, just outside Scranton. The parcel is about 600 acres and in a good location. There are only a few houses in the area, and they are not very close to the property, which borders hunting land, a cemetery and a landfill. Those are not exactly the type of next-door neighbors that would object.

Once the land was found, researching the zoning regulations was the very first thing I did followed by calling the building inspector, zoning officer and township secretary who were made fully aware of our plans to build a range on this property. Relying on these conversations and the Township Zoning Law, which allows a commercial shooting range as a permitted use (i.e. a use permitted by right and not subject to discretion of officials or the imposition of restrictions other than those outlined in the law), we bought the land. That was the easy part of the development.

Though we have all heard the adage that real estate value is all about “location, location, location,” the single most-important factor for shooting ranges is zoning entitlements. Zoning ordinances tell you if and in what locations ranges are allowed and, also, what sort of restrictions apply to the ranges’ design and operation. Zoning laws make or break a business plan because they can significantly impact construction cost and type of shooting programs offered.

Soon after, we moved several tan “deuce and a half” military trucks and a military-style trailer to the property that would be used in the construction. Though the area’s largest employer is a military base and a Pennsylvania National Guard unit that repairs such trucks is just down the road from our land, the trucks were noticed and caused one nosy neighbor to stop and speak with one of our representatives who explained that a commercial shooting range would be built. This was a mistake, for talk of the shooting range, coupled with seeing military trucks, sparked rumors of a “militia” moving in and tanks operating on the property.

These rumors hit a crescendo when a flyer was anonymously distributed to every township home and even people outside the township. The flyer was replete with erroneous claims that a separate shooting sports company that I own in New York bought the land on which to operate its business. The flyer was based on information from the New York company’s website, and the anonymous author claimed the same activities would be conducted in Ransom. The author used selective phrases from the website to mislead the reader about what was planned and who–“out of town New Yorkers”–would be using it. The flyer was also sent to every large media outlet, which, in turn, contacted me for comment. Finally, the rumors became so annoying that the township asked me to attend one of its monthly meetings to speak about the range. I accepted after speaking with the township supervisors, who suggested the topics I should address. Unfortunately, at this meeting nothing went according to plan. The meeting was ineptly run by one supervisor who allowed hecklers to disrupt my discussion and sidetrack the meeting while he sat behind me visibly amused by the badgering and insults I received. Moreover, the attendees expected a development plan and were dissatisfied because we were not ready to present one.

Advice from the school of hard knocks

  • Research the zoning and land development ordinances of the areas you are considering. This needs to be done before doing a site search because an ideal spot is worthless if your zoning is onerous. Yes, zoning laws can be appealed and variances granted, but it’s a costly battle requiring lots of legal, engineering and public education investments. One misinformed or anti-gun neighbor can block a zoning variance from being granted in some states.
  • Understand your state’s range protection and firearms preemption statutes, if any. These laws can materially impact your range in the planning stage and in the future.
  • Keep your plans private until you submit them to the approving authorities. Advance notice can only create false rumors. You are better off to conduct informational sessions and educate the public afterward with full knowledge of the plans and in a controlled setting. Be prepared to address questions on noise, bullet containment/safety, lead pollution and traffic. If you will be selling or renting firearms, be ready to address other matters as well.
  • A public range will get much more support from the area than a private club. Some gun owners even told us they would only support a public-access range.
  • Use good engineers for design and permitting. Clark Vargas from Vargas Associates is a very experienced range-design engineer who offered guidance to us. Dieter Engineering did the plans, highway access and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NDPES) permits, and Scott Hansen Consulting provided sound-mitigation plans.
  • Involve NRA and NSSF range development staff early in the process. NRA’s Range Development Conference and Range Source Book are absolutely essential sources of information as are NSSF’s DVDs on noise mitigation, lead management and baffles/berms. View the list of NSSF’s resources for ranges. Also consult with NRA-ILA legal staff if the municipality you are in appears to ignore your state’s range-protection and firearms-preemption laws.
  • Be prepared to file a lawsuit to protect your legal rights. Lawsuits put the world on notice that you expect all parties to follow the law with respect to your land development and that you will not hesitate to defend your business’s brand image, reputation and economic future. Lawsuits also tend to check the spread of reckless rumors designed to undermine your business before it opens.
  • Never assume that local gun owners will support the range. Some of the “opposing team” were gun owners. The only reliable gun-owner support we received was from NRA members who understood that shooting ranges are safe and who correctly identified firearms ownership with American freedom.
  • Get to know the local political leaders. They need to understand you are a responsible party. Explain that your project is a large personal investment and that a well-run facility is in your best commercial interests and will bring recreational, safe firearm training and commercial benefits to the township’s residents.

This troublesome supervisor was up for election that year, so he chose to “pour gas on a fire” to his political advantage. At subsequent meetings he voiced opposition to the range, without having seen any plans, and he encouraged residents to form a neighborhood group to find a way to stop it. Soon after, two people sent a flyer to residents containing fallacies and misinformation and urging them to join a group to “get answers to questions.” The same supervisor also took the unprecedented step of allowing the township meeting room to be used by this group free of charge. It was at these meetings that some of the most incendiary and flagrantly ignorant ideas about the range were propagated by a few residents whose homes were hundreds to thousands of yards away from the proposed firing lines. Someone from this group even sent a letter to local rod and gun clubs urging them to oppose the range, claiming our development would take away some of their members.

These ideas included shooting down commercial planes, hosting wild bachelor parties that mixed alcohol and shooting, “dangers” posed by ammo storage, running paramilitary operations, tank maneuvers at night, terrorists using the range, shots raining down on a public park more than a mile away–and more. The local police, Homeland Security and the FBI were all contacted and asked to investigate. Local politicians were asked to pressure the township supervisors to block the range. The FAA from an airport 10 miles away was called, as was the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, on the false tip that “a heavy-duty gun range was moving in next door to the highway.”

In a blatant example of impropriety, the then township counsel gave legal advice at township meetings on how to stop the range. The leader of the “kill the range” group even thanked the counsel publicly for his help with their cause. Consequently, the troublemakers circulated a petition demanding a change of zoning and lowering the noise ordinance to impossibly low levels that would have eliminated the hope of developing a shooting range. Just as seriously, several of our trucks were vandalized, one was destroyed by gunfire and a written death threat against me was made.

We were forced to sue five people, including one supervisor, for commercial disparagement and intentional interference with contractual relations because of the real damage to the range’s future business and reputation from the lies and falsehoods being spread. We believed the damage being inflicted by the recklessness of a few people was substantial and quantifiable. Moreover, the few troublemakers who opposed the range and those who would evaluate and approve our development plans needed to understand that we would not back down from a fight.

After our preliminary plans were filed with the planning commission, the strategy of the troublemakers changed from trying to change the zoning ordinance to making it appear that our plans did not comply with the ordinance or the range was going to be a public nuisance and should be disallowed regardless of the law. I was told that the engineer hired to determine if our plans complied with the zoning and land-development laws was pressured into asking questions that were irrelevant to these laws and were asked to satisfy the troublemakers and obfuscate the approval process.

One ordinance that could only be interpreted to regulate the storage of ammunition by classifying ammo as an “explosive” is rendered a nullity by Pennsylvania’s Firearms Preemption law, but we were still asked to describe how we would store ammo, what quantities were stored and where. This was despite materials from NRA explaining that state and federal laws do not classify small-arms ammunition as an explosive and that state law preempts localities from regulating the sale, possession, ownership or transportation of firearms or ammunition.

Space limitations preclude a more complete narrative of what we have experienced, but you’ll find in a lengthy sidebar to this article my advice to those who are seeking to develop a range. As of this writing, our revised plans have been submitted to the planning commission for review. We hope to write a subsequent article once we open!

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