“I ask you to please protect our community. Please protect us citizens. You have the right to do that,” Vicky Rogers, a representative of the Francis Farm community, pleaded to county commissioners at a county meeting last week.
While commissioners sympathized with the neighbors who have now appeared before them twice, they said they aren’t willing to swoop in and stop an indoor shooting range without a full-fledged community dialogue on land-use planning and zoning.
However, commissioners drew a distinction when it came to outdoor shooting ranges — which neighbors fear could also be part of the property owner’s long-range plan.
“I don’t think that is an appropriate place for an outdoor shooting range,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said. “If you have an inadvertent charge, you don’t know where it is going to end up.”
Once an outdoor shooting range comes along, however, the county would have few options to unwind it. So commissioners decided to consider a moratorium — which would enact a temporary 60-day ban on outdoor shooting ranges — in order to study the issue.
During the moratorium window, the county would decide whether to enact rules governing where outdoor shooting ranges could go, and then lift the moratorium once the protections are in place.
“A moratorium would create some breathing room to study outdoors ranges and it would give anyone considering an outdoor range a forum to explain how they would make it safe. It would create a place for dialogue and time for dialogue,” Swanger said.
The county must hold a public hearing on the idea of a outdoor shooting range moratorium before enacting it, however. A public hearing is planned for 9 a.m. Monday, Feb. 1, in the historic courthouse in Waynesville.
Several members of the audience from the Francis Farm community applauded the decision to pursue a moratorium.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said the risk to public safety posed by outdoor shooting ranges warrants swift action by the county.
“I don’t want to miss the boat if we aren’t doing anything proactive to prevent an outdoor shooting range in a location where it isn’t safe,” Kirkpatrick said.
For now, there’s nothing to stop anyone from building an indoor shooting range — or outdoor shooting range — wherever they please, due to the lack of land-use rules in the county.
Residents of Francis Farm are grieved by the prospect an indoor shooting range and gun store setting up shop in their agrarian community with a long family lineage.
It was their second appeal to commissioners this month. Their comments this time played up concerns over safety for nearby children commuting to school.
“We have kids that’s traveling by this road where this proposed gun range is going to be at least four times a day on school buses within 100 feet of where the front door is going to be,” said Jim Francis. “If y’all would please take this into consideration. It needs to be looked at big time.”
Indoor range still on the table
Francis Farm residents didn’t get everything they hoped, however. Ideally, they would like to stop an indoor shooting range from coming to their community as well, and hoped commissioners would step in and pass land-use rules to stop it.
“Please think about if it were you,” said Janie Higgins, who lives across the road from the proposed indoor shooting range site. “I have lived there my entire life. My family has owned the property in that community for over 150 years and I do not want to see it commercialized.”
Commissioners said they sympathized with the residents.
“Certainly I sympathize with the people who don’t want this particular thing in their neighborhood,” Kirkpatrick agreed. “But if I start establishing rules to protect certain people’s property, what am I doing to the other people by saying you can’t do this with your property? I am not really interested in telling people what they can do with their property until we discuss the whole issue as a county.”
“I agree,” Swanger replied. “We can’t pick winners and losers. That’s the problem. We can’t abuse our power by intervening in such a way that would just not be right.”
A member of the audience then spoke up, asking commissioners if they thought Francis Farm was an appropriate location for an indoor shooting range and gun store.
“I’m not saying it is appropriate. But there is nothing that prohibits it,” Swanger said. “Appropriate? That is subjective. I wouldn’t want it next to my house. I’ll be honest with you. But the only way I can prevent that is to have land-use planning that would prohibit certain activities or buying the land around me.”
While an indoor shooting range could comprise the community’s character and sense of place, regulations protecting those sorts of things need to play out in the context of a larger dialogue on land-use planning, commissioners said.
But when it comes to outdoor shooting ranges, where human safety is a factor, they felt intervention would be more justified.
“Outside, an inadvertent round of a .22-caliber will travel about a mile. So you don’t know where it is going to come to rest, and schools are nearby and neighbors and traffic, et cetera,” Swanger said. “So that would not seem appropriate to me at all. But I couldn’t make that same argument for an indoor range.”
Land-use planning kickstart?
The debate over the shooting range has ignited a larger discussion about the lack of land-use planning and zoning in the county.
Lisa Nelson, a resident of Francis Farm, urged commissioners to take the bull by the horns and address the long overdue need for land-use planning to protect property values and the integrity of communities throughout the county.
“We don’t like change. Most of us live in an era where change is hard to deal with,” Nelson said. “It is time you all start to look at land-use planning and zoning in this area. It is time to open the dialogue now. Let’s talk about keeping the pristine communities that people come here to enjoy.”
Commissioners admitted it may be time to take up the issue.
“We haven’t had that discussion as a county as a whole. That discussion probably needs to happen,” Kirkpatrick said. “Nobody really wants to have that discussion because they know the onslaught of the people who will be here when we do try to have that.”
Commissioner Bill Upton recalled the last time the county engaged in a dialogue on zoning it didn’t go over so well.
“I recall 10 years ago we checked to see if there was anyone out there interested in land use and it failed miserably,” Upton said.
“Actually it was 20 years ago,” Swanger said. “You are aging yourself a little bit, Bill. It was 20 years ago. I remember it. It was a very contentious argument and most people spoke in opposition to it. Now granted when people show up with cow bells ringing and booing, a lot of people are intimidated and don’t speak up.”
While the idea of zoning was shot down then, sentiments may have changed, Swanger said.
“Things may have changed in 20 years. I don’t know. But this is a real life example of what happens when we don’t plan.”
“I think we can expect in the future we are going to have other things moving into communities we don’t know about that no one wants,” Upton added.