Cape Elizabeth gun club ‘essentially grandfathered in’ from municipal interference

Posted Aug. 30, 2013, at 8:15 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 30, 2013, at 9:31 a.m.
Club members take aim at targets at the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club on Sawyer Road in Cape Elizabeth in April.
Club members take aim at targets at the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club on Sawyer Road in Cape Elizabeth in April.

CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — A lawyer hired by the town says the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club is within its legal rights to continue operating with little municipal interference.

The legal analysis of a long-running dispute between the shooting range and its neighbors was performed over the summer by Portland attorney Kenneth Cole, and is now available on the town’s website. Cole’s report will also be the subject of a Town Council workshop at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, in council chambers.

Cole was hired in June to sort out whether the town could or should manage the dispute between residents of the Cross Hill neighborhood and the shooting range on Sawyer Road. The neighbors have been at odds with the club for more than a decade over noise and safety complaints.

For the most part, the town has steered clear of involvement, other than facilitating occasional forums between the opposing sides. In the spring, however, the town decided to take a look at its rights and responsibilities.

According to Cole’s report, state and federal laws offer clear protections to shooting ranges, but there is some wiggle room for municipalities to establish regulations if there is “strong public-interest justification.”

The report states that shooting ranges in Maine have been “afforded extra protection by the Legislature to the extent that a given shooting range has been in operating for an extended period of time,” which applies to this case. Spurwink Rod & Gun Club first appeared on Sawyer Road around 1960, more than 30 years before the housing development took shape on what is now called Cross Hill Road.

“Additionally, Maine law prohibits municipalities from using noise control ordinances to limit or eliminate activties,” the report states. “Thus, such facilities are essentially grandfathered in.”

On the federal level, the U.S. Constitution requires that municipalities provide meaningful justification to regulate shooting ranges. This standard “prevents municipalities from banning shooting ranges altogether,” the report states.

At the municipal level, Cole’s analysis finds that towns can “impose time, place and manner restrictions on shooting ranges” as long as regulations are “closely tailored” to the public interest.

“Based on the above legal analysis and these facts, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council may adopt an ordinance regulating and licensing the Club, but any such ordinance will need to be based on specific findings that it is required to enhance and promote the public’s safety, health and welfare,” the report concludes.

Town Manager Michael McGovern said Wednesday that it’s too soon to predict whether the Town Council might entertain any regulations. A reporter’s message to Spurwink Rod & Gun Club President Mark Mayone wasn’t immediately returned.

Strife between residents of Cross Hill and the gun club began at least as far back as 1999, when more than 300 people signed a petition to reduce the hours of operation at the shooting range, according to published reports.

A decade later, in September 2009, police investigated a report of a bullet lodged in the outer wall of a nearby home. It’s unknown if the bullet was fired from the gun range.

In late April, police received a report of shots fired at the range about 20 minutes after sunset – a violation of the gun club’s policy. Several weeks later, in response to the violation, the club revoked the shooter’s membership, according to its Facebook page.

McGovern has said the April incident had no bearing on the town’s decision to seek outside legal advice.

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