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Round 4: Saluda residents fight sheriff's shooting range

John McHugh talks about his opposition to proposed shooting range on land bordering his property on Macedonia Road. John McHugh talks about his opposition to proposed shooting range on land bordering his property on Macedonia Road.

SALUDA — Residents near the Macedonia Road site Henderson County officials have targeted for a shooting range and law enforcement training center are organizing to stop the project.

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In the fourth attempt to site the controversial facility, a priority of Sheriff Charlie McDonald, commissioners emerged from a closed session last week and authorized administrators to move forward on negotiations to purchase of 99 acres on Macedonia Road near I-26.
The stretch of Macedonia Road from U.S. 176 to Old Howard Gap Road is a narrow, curving blacktop. When the paved road changes to Old Howard Gap, Macedonia Road makes a sharp left and passes under I-26, now an even narrower dirt road. The facility would be off that road, in the hilly forest that neighbors fear will soon ring out with snarling chain saws and growling motor graders. Homeowners here have a Saluda mailing address and a Saluda phone exchange, “orphaned” from Hendersonville, as one resident described it. Now that they have reason to engage in business at the county seat, they're loaded for bear.
“The idea that this is described by Steve Wyatt as remote land is totally ridiculous,” Jay Bergen, of Knight Road off Macedonia Road, told the Saluda Board of Commissioners Monday night. “It may be remote from Hendersonville but it is not remote from Saluda and it’s not remote for the people that live along Macedonia Road. … The idea that this pristine land is going to be destroyed by this political boondoggle is really obscene, that they’re going to spend $6 million.”
Bergen was among seven speakers who attended the Town Board meeting to express opposition to the project and urge the the elected leaders to pass on their concerns to the Henderson County Board of Commissioners. The county commissioners themselves will get an earful next week in what has played out as an emotional not-in-my-backyard refrain three times before — when county officials proposed the project in Green River, on top of Pinnacle Mountain and at Blue Ridge Community College.
Tom McHugh mocked the statement from a county official that the sound of gunfire would be no louder than a woodpecker.
“Five-hundred feet from my front door — that’s a pretty large woodpecker,” he said. “This is their fourth attempt to place this rifle range and I don’t think they need to be dumping their problems on Saluda.”
Yorke Pharr, a real estate developer and landowner who has built several subdivisions in the Green River-Saluda area, said the range was incompatible with the many acres of the Green River Gamelands and other private land owners have protected with conservation easements.
“I’ve got a lot of investment in this area,” Pharr said. “I led the fight up there (in Green River) to beat this thing. I’m encouraging the people of Saluda, and this area, if you don’t want it, you need to go to the county commissioners meeting and sign up and tell them why you don’t want it. We did that in Green River. We had 50 people get up and talk for 2½ to 3 hours. We took over that meeting and they voted it down that night.”
Showing a visitor the boundary between his land and the 100-acre site the county wants to buy, John McHugh, 67, said he did not believe any amount of engineering could buffer the noise.
“They can swear up and down I can’t hear it and I’d say, ‘Fine, post a bond equal to one and half times the assessed value of the property and my hearing would become very good,’” said McHugh, a retired computer science professor.
He also objects to traffic.
“I have yet to see law enforcement officers, either the sheriff or police, traveling at or below the speed limit on these roads. They tend to go a lot faster than I’m comfortable going,” he said. “The road is not in the greatest of shape.”
His brother, Tom and Susan McHugh, the retired superintendent of Polk County public schools, are also organizing opposition. When John mentions putting a flier in every mailbox in the area, Tom responds, “Susan’s already got that taken care of.”
“I don’t know if they’ve ever been down here,” John said. “It doesn’t look like there’s anybody down but there are a dozen or more houses out this road (Knight Road), there are four or five down Macedonia Road. There’s quite a lot of people in here and most of us came in here because we liked being back where there is nothing.”
The owners, the Laheis heirs, listed the property at $900,000, McHugh said. The county expects to offer less than that, Wyatt told the commissioners.
“They haven’t used the property in probably 20, 30 years. They put in on the market probably about a year ago and nobody but nobody had nibbled according to what I heard,” McHugh said.
Buying the land would not be the end of the process. A firing range is permitted with a special-use permit under the county’s land-use code, meaning it would need the OK of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. John McHugh said the facility would contain government offices, a use he said is prohibited in the land’s R-3 zoning.
Tom McHugh, 72, said his message to commissioners would be, “Back off.”
“We’re not even sure the county commissioners know much about it all,” he said. “We suspect the county manager and the sheriff are trying to do something to try to help the sheriff get re-elected.”
“There’s no need for it in the first place. Why does Henderson County need their own training facility? Buncombe County’s got a brand new one,” he said. “They’ll be glad to share it for a small fee. In Shelby there’s a statewide one vacant waiting for people to make reservations less than an hour away. And in Georgia there’s a federal range, which is done by reservation. It makes no sense. Why should Henderson County pay for it?”

In a statement last week praising the commissioners for their support, McDonald reiterated his reasons for the facility.

"It has always been my intention to have an outdoor facility that would allow more training opportunities as well as an indoor force options building that would allow ongoing and realistic training for deputies responding to crisis events," he said. "Recent incidents across our nation have only served to underscore the necessity of such training. We ask these men and women to respond to incredibly complex emergencies, exercising flawless critical problem-solving skills, when in many instances we have failed to properly prepare them. As your Sheriff I have, and always will, make every effort to provide the best possible training for all my personnel and I will do so with an eye toward the future as well as the present."

McDonald and Will Buie, a consulting engineer who would design the site plan for the project, are scheduled to meet with neighbors at the site, 2823 Macedonia Road, at 10 a.m. Saturday.

"This potential project is still in the study phase, as the county is taking all steps to ensure that the chosen location is indeed the most appropriate site for this training facility," said a letter to property owners signed by County Engineer Marcus Jones.
John McHugh sent an email to sheriff’s candidate Lowell Griffin, whose response, he said, was that the renewed effort to site the training center looked like “'an attempt to try to take the heat off the sheriff by getting this done' and that could very well be. They took a lot of heat over that $20 million-plus thing at the community college."