CAPE ELIZABETH – The Cape Elizabeth Town Council Ordinance Committee will hold its second meeting in two weeks Friday to continue work on a new Shooting Range Ordinance, and the reason for the rare back-to-back meetings is clear to those familiar with the debate.

“Certainly, there is a faction of this town that would like to shut down this gun club,” said Council Chairman Jessica Sullivan at the committee’s Jan. 10 meeting.

There has been a long-simmering dispute between the 57-year-old Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, located at 1250 Sawyer Road, and its neighbors in Cape Elizabeth’s Cross Hill subdivision, who began populating the area in the 1990s. For residents, it’s a question of noise and, following a 2009 report of bullets found lodged in houses, safety. But for club members, the question of how to get along hinges on one key point:

“We were here first,” said club President Mark Mayon, during a recent tour of the facility.

“It boils down to a whole bunch of affluent people who moved in around us and, all of a sudden, they think their rights trump ours. That’s not even close to what’s considered being fair,” he said. “It’s bothersome to think that the Cross Hill neighborhood, just because they’re moneyed, they get to have their way.

“They’re not taking responsibility for what they did, and what they did was move in next to a gun club,” said Mayon. “Every one of them over there will tell you a sob story about how they weren’t told about us. Are you serious? You put in a $700,000-to-$1-million home and you didn’t bother to know who your neighbors were? I don’t buy any of that.”

After more than three years of active animosity between the gun club and its neighbors, which came out in 2012 when local attorney Jamie Wagner, now a town councilor, tried to get the town to intervene on behalf of an unnamed Cross Hill client. Councilors finally took action last fall, after attempts to encourage a cooperative agreement proved fruitless.

In September, the Town Council hired Kenneth Cole, of Portland law firm Jenson Baird Gardner & Henry, and charged him with interviewing leaders among the gun club and local residents, in hopes of brokering a compromise between the two groups. Wagner has since been recused from matters relating to the gun club, and Sullivan has been attending the ordinance committee meetings in his stead.

That action was prompted in part by a PR campaign launched last September by residents, which Mayon says, left club members feeling “stabbed in the back.”

“We had what we felt was a relationship that was starting to build at that time,” said Mayon, “It was gaining steam. Stuff was moving forward. But then in September a couple of residents over there came out with a YouTube video totally demeaning the club, totally demeaning Cape Elizabeth. Then they took out ads in the newspaper asking, ‘Is this the town of Spurwink?’

“I think that’s the affluence thing,” said Mayon. “For them, whatever they want is right now. For us, it takes time.”

In a Dec. 2 report on his findings, Cole included a draft ordinance containing what he called “specific management practices, hours of operation and liability insurance requirements” to which the gun club must adhere, while still respecting state limits on the regulation of firearms and the noise they create. If adopted, the ordinance would enact a licensing requirement for shooting ranges, while establishing a five-person committee to review applications.

The Spurwink club would not be grandfathered from the new rules, nominally written to cover any new shooting ranges, and would have to apply for a town license within six months of the ordinance’s effective date.

“I don’t know how they could possibly comply within six months,” said Councilor James Walsh, citing the Cole-authored call for various site plans and reports for licensing. However, Cole said the proposed ordinance only uses National Rifle Association standards, “so as not to be seen as discriminatory.”

But, some residents say, that allowance seems to lean a little too heavily on the side of the gun club.

“I’m surprised in a gun club ordinance to find so little reference to safety,” said Bobbie Manson of Cardinal Lane. “The sign ordinance has stronger language about public safety.”

“Gun clubs and the discharge of firearms is, unfortunately, protected by various cases under the second amendment, whereas signs aren’t,” said Cole, explaining when the town’s hands are tied.

The proposed ordinance does set an acceptable noise level at 65 decibels 1,000 feet from the firing line. However, Maine law does not allow residents to bring a nuisance suit against a shooting range based on noise if they moved in after the site was established. Furthermore, says Cole, statutes prevent municipalities from acting to control or limit noise already occurring on a regular basis. The best that can be done, he said, is for the town to adopt “time, place and manner” restrictions on the club, provided any new ordinance is “based on specific findings that it is required to enhance and promote the public’s safety, health and welfare.”

Even so, the ordinance must be written broadly, said Cole, without reference to the Spurwink club or its activities.

“You are not allowed to address an ordinance to a specific use, and you’ve only got one use here,” said Cole.

On that point, Mayon agrees.

“Since we’re the only show, everything they do is just for us,” he said. “At the end of the day, everything they do is either for us or against us.”

According to Mayon, the club, which has about 300 members, including 30 who use the site on a weekly basis, has a five-year plan to install noise muffling walls and a system of baffles known as “no blue sky” that will prevent shooters from discharging weapons into the air from the firing line. It has also restricted some activities and weapons as residential areas around it have grown, and instituted a policy of automatic suspensions for disobeying the posted hours of operation.

“I had to say to one member recently, ‘I’m sorry, but you know what I have to do,’” he said, referring to one such suspension.

According to Mayon, prior to institution of the new policy, the club had sanctioned just one member in 15 years.

“So, we really are trying to be good neighbors,” he said.

Additionally, the club installed a fence around the perimeter of the property, with signs located roughly every 5 feet advising the danger of what’s on the other side.

“The residents were right, anyone could have walked onto the range,” said Mayon. “Where their concerns are about safety, we’re right there with them and want to do everything we can as soon as we can afford it.”

Still, funding for improvements is an issue, in part because the club, despite being in Cape, is not an affluent one.

“I joined because it’s smaller, more informal and a lot less expensive than other clubs,” said Richard Aspinall of Scarborough, a 17-year Spurwink member.

“One problem we have is, we feel as though at some point we are going to end up in court over all this,” said Mayon. “What the residents don’t realize is that we operate on a razor-thin margin. So, if we have to save up all of our ducats to go into court, then it slows down what we want to do on the range. We want to go faster, but we’re hamstrung by having to save for legal fees.”

But a five-year plan for “no blue sky” is not sufficient for some residents, who fear a repeat of the 2009 incident. Hence, reliance on a town ordinance to ease their sense of well-being.

“Five years, that seems too long of a time to wait for my purposes,” said Cross Hill resident Kathy Kline. “I’m just hoping that with this ordinance we can determine whether the design of the gun club is sufficient to protect the public.”

“Miraculously, no one has come up to offer us any kind of funding,” said Mayon, suggesting the club will happily take donations from area residents to enhance safety features. “We’ll accept money from anyone, but nothing. That’s why we say, the real drive is to put us out of business.”

“You can’t use a licensing ordinance as an excuse to, in essence, shut down a facility,” said Cole, on Friday. “I know there are some people who hoped that’s what was going to happen.”

“Ultimately, we’re just average guys who want to do what we’ve always done,” says Mayon. “We’re not ogres.”

Mark Mayon, president of the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club, stands on a hill overlooking the club’s firing range on Sawyer Road in Cape Elizabeth. The club will be subject to a new licensing procedure for the first time in its 57-year history, if a new ordinance being drafted following neighborhood complaints is adopted.  

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