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Commissioners ease zoning rules for shooting ranges

Tackling a subject that tends to trigger emotions on either side, Henderson County commissioners in a split vote decided to make commercial outdoor shooting ranges a permitted use in three residential zones and reduce the buffer by 125 feet and defeated a motion to cut nighttime hours of the ranges.

The board's effort to clarify the regulation comes after a Zoning Board of Adjustment showed that the county's land-use ordinance was ambiguous in how it defined private shooting ranges and commercial shooting ranges. The proposed text amendments recommended that indoor and outdoor commercial ranges be a permitted use in three of the county's residential zones. The ranges would be allowed in R2R  (one unit per acre), R2R (one unit per 1½ acre) and R-4 (one unit per 5 acres) but not in R1 (four units per acre) and R2 (one unit per acre).

Commissioner Rebecca McCall made a motion to require a special-use permit for ranges in residential zones and to reduce the hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. "just to make sure in a residential area a commercial range is following the rules they need to follow." Commissioners defeated the motion on a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Daniel Andreotta, David Hill and Michael Edney voting no and chairman Bill Lapsley joining McCall in voting yes. By the same vote, commissioners defeated McCall's motion to make closing time 6 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.

Commissioners voted to make the county ordinance even more permissive, removing the special-use permit requirement in the office-institutional zone and reducing the buffer and setback from 200 feet to 75 feet. The motion passed in a 4-1 vote with McCall voting no.

"We're telling you you've got a 200-foot strip of property you can't do anything with and that's harsh," said Hill, who made the motions on the office-institutional zone and the reduced buffer.

Jere Brittain, a resident of the Upper South Mills River community, urged commissioners to rein in the commercial ranges, particularly one on Dalton Road owned by a former sheriff's deputy.

Practice shooting of single-shot and automatic weapons goes on "frequently last 9:30 or later" and can be heard in a half-mile radius that is home to "elderly persons, an adult with PTSD and an autistic child who is frightened by loud gunfire. ... At the Dalton Road range, we have officers who are sworn to preserve the peace actively enaged in disturbing the peace in our valley. So I strongly urge the county commission to remand the issue to the Planning Board with instructions to draft noise and gun ordinance conditions that reflect the intent and purpose, which I assume is to maintain peace and tranquility in Henderson County neighborhoods."

Called on to talk about the training range on Dalton Road and complaints generally about gun range noise, Sheriff Lowell Griffin said his office gets plenty of calls.

"This is a more complicated issue than what it looks like on its face," he said. "Every weekend, we're answering complaints about gunfire. The vast majority of people, like I am, are Second Amendment proponents. It's really an issue not about the gunfire but about the noise. It's a tough issue because we live in an area, beautiful as it is, depending on how the terrain lays and how the sound is deflected, you can have a circumference area, on one side if you're over a hill, it may barely be noticeable, and on the other side the gunfire can sound like it's coming directly beside your home. ...

"It's almost like the sound bounces around from different mountainsides and some of these valleys," he said. "I don't envy you making these decisions because somebody is not going to be happy no matter which way you go. Most of the complaints we get — they're not anti-gun people. They're anti-noise people."

Griffin said deputies tread a delicate balance when responding to complaints about shooting because of Second Amendment rights versus the county's noise ordinance and quality of life issues.

"Most of the time we're able to mitigate these calls," he said.

Local law enforcement agencies face a challenge in finding a place for the annual certification training, Griffin said, and the Mills River range is one of the few options in the county. "The way this county has grown, it's difficult to find a place to locate an outdoor range."

Given that the county is about to invest in new courthouse and jail facilities, Commissioner Michael Edney suggested adding an indoor range to the plans.

"Can we at least look at and see if it's a possibility?" he said. "In a $20 million project, a million dollars is not that much."

County Manager Steve Wyatt said the concept could be added to the proposal, although he added that $1 million is a very low cost projection for an indoor shooting range.