CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — The town will hire a lawyer to mediate a long-running dispute between a gun club and its neighbors, and draft an ordinance for the Town Council to review.
That was the outcome of a two-hour Town Council workshop Thursday night that included the forced recusal of a councilor and a wide-ranging, and sometimes contentious, public comment period about Spurwink Rod and Gun Club and whether it is a nuisance or safety hazard to its neighbors.
About 100 people packed the council chambers for the workshop, filling all available seats and part of the mezzanine.
Attorney Ken Cole, who was recently hired by the town to compile a report on the issue, will be asked by the council to meet with members of the Cross Hill Neighborhood and the gun club to work toward a compromise that may include a draft ordinance for the council to review in November. The council will take a formal vote on the issue at its next meeting, Monday, Sept. 9.
The evening began with the forced recusal of Councilor Jamie Wagner — an attorney who last year represented a resident of the Cross Hill neighborhood against the gun club before he took office in December.
Wagner argued that he was divested of any interest and could serve as an impartial voice in the discussion. But that wasn’t enough for Councilors David Sherman, Jessica Sullivan, Kathy Ray and Jim Walsh, who argued that Wagner’s former role in the dispute could be perceived as a conflict and imperil the legitimacy of the eventual outcome.
The council voted 4-2 to recuse Wagner, who then watched the meeting from the front row as a member of the audience.
With that business aside, the workshop began in earnest, with Cole sharing his legal analysis of the issue. Cole had been hired by the town in June to look into the dispute and see if the town had any rights or responsibilities to manage it.
Cole found that state and federal laws offer clear protections to shooting ranges. And, because the shooting range first appeared at 1250 Sawyer Road around 1960 — about 30 years before the Cross Hill neighborhood was developed — the site is grandfathered.
There is, however, some wiggle room for municipalities to establish regulations if there is strong justification, Cole said.
Next, Cross Hill representative Kathy Kline and gun club president Mark Mayone provided an update on their strained relations. The two sides have met occasionally, as recently as this summer, but nothing has been effective, Kline argued.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like a lot has gotten done,” she said.
For example, the neighborhood asked the gun club to hire an independent third party to conduct a safety review of the range. The gun club hired a National Rifle Association-affiliated surveyor, which didn’t meet the neighborhood’s standard for impartiality, Kline said. Also, the club won’t share the results of that analysis.
Mayone said the club passed the safety inspection, but he is wary of sharing the report because the club doesn’t trust that everyone in the neighborhood is approaching the dispute with cooperative intent.
In terms of addressing noise and safety issues, Mayone said the club has added sound insulation, and fencing and signs, to keep neighbors from accidentally entering the firing range.
“We’ve spent a considerable amount of money in the last month,” he said.
For the next hour, the council heard first-hand accounts from neighbors and club members on a wide variety of perceptions and accusations, including two residents who said their homes were struck by errant bullets from the range — claims that the gun club denies and the police haven’t validated.
The most discussed issue, however, was whether shooting at the club has increased significantly within the past year or so. Many neighbors said use has surged, while long-time members of the club argued that use has diminished during its 60-year history.
Tom Brady, a 12-year resident of Cross Hill, said the noise was insignificant for many years.
“But that changed. The use has become significant to the point where it’s disruptive,” he said. “I can’t enjoy my life in my backyard. I get woken up on occasion. And it’s a definite change.
“If it was anything else [besides guns], even a knitting club, that was making that kind of noise, we would have regulated it already,” Brady said. “It’s really unacceptable at this point.”
That sentiment was echoed by Steve Parkhurst, who developed the neighborhood.
“I can honestly say, having been there at the very beginning in 1999 until present day, there has been a dramatic, and I mean dramatic, change in the noise level at the gun club,” Parkhurst said. “It was never, never an issue from the year 2000 until … last year.”
Parkhurst said it sounds like one or more people use assault rifles at the range and “they’re blowing off a lot of shells.”
Tammy Walter, who lives about a mile from the shooting range and has been a member for about a year, disagreed that the noise level has increased.
“I decided to become a member because I heard about the Cross Hill neighborhood trying to shut the gun club down and I thought, ‘This is [expletive],’” she said. “I have lived in my house for 18 years and I can hear guns — I can hear them fire — and it has never changed.”
Andy Tabor said he also has a long view of the area and the gun club.
“I’ve lived here for over 50 years; I’ve been a rod and gun club member for over 30 years. I’m a past president of the rod and gun club,” he said. “There has been no expansion of use. If anything, we’ve cut back.
“I don’t know how anybody can say the use has increased. It’s exactly the same club, and it’s been used in exactly the same way for the last 60 years. The changes that we’re putting in now are all to be proactive to either eliminate noise or add safety.”
At the close of the public comment period, Town Manager Michael McGovern suggested that the council should hire Cole to mediate the situation, an approach that the council seemed to favor.
Ray said she welcomed the suggestion, because the council would have been hard-pressed to reach a decision based on the public comments.
“When you listen to everybody, you hear opinions that are all over the place,” Ray said. “We’ve heard everything from A to Z, so there’s no decision we could make without having some kind of mediation.”