CAPE ELIZABETH — The town will pay for an independent safety evaluation of the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club in a continuing effort to address neighbors’ concerns about the outdoor shooting range.

Controversy over the gun club at 1250 Sawyer Road intensified last year, when residents of a neighborhood that recently grew up around the 61-year-old shooting range pressured town officials to pass a new ordinance and establish a committee to address safety and noise complaints.

Town Manager Mike McGovern advertised a formal request Monday seeking applications from qualified shooting range evaluators. The club had a similar study done in August 2012 by a local expert from the National Rifle Association, but some residents have questioned whether that study’s findings and recommendations for safety improvements are unbiased.

“The Firing Range Committee wants an independent safety evaluation that wasn’t done by the gun club,” McGovern said Tuesday. “What we want is good information and we want the gun club to be safe.”

It’s unclear how much the evaluation will cost until the town receives applications, McGovern said.

NOT LOOKING AT NOISE LEVELS

According to the town’s request for applications, the evaluator will be expected to assess all aspects of the shooting range related to shot containment and gun safety practices, from physical structures intended to contain bullets to records kept of safety issues. The evaluator won’t review issues beyond gun safety, such as noise levels, workplace safety and environmental concerns.

The evaluator’s report to the town will include safety findings and recommended next steps to address any deficiencies. The report won’t include engineered plans showing the layout of the shooting range or recommended improvements.

The Firing Range Committee has met several times since June, after the Town Council passed an ordinance in March that established regulations to review and oversee the town’s only formal shooting range and any others that might be proposed. The committee has encountered several challenges in trying to enforce the ordinance, largely because of conflicting, confusing or vague language.

The committee decided to seek an independent safety evaluation after the gun club received a $28,000 grant from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife last fall. The gun club attempted to move ahead with required safety improvements, but the town’s code enforcement officer couldn’t issue a necessary building permit until the club applied for and received a license under the new ordinance, which was expected to take several months.

In September, the council voted 7-0 to grant an exception to the gun club, allowing the code enforcement officer to issue a building permit for safety improvements before the club is licensed if it lets the town conduct an independent safety evaluation.

‘A VERY UNIQUE SITUATION’

Councilor Caitlin Jordan, committee chairwoman, acknowledged the town is making an exception in paying for an independent evaluation because it’s trying to strike a balance between a longstanding community organization and a relatively new neighborhood.

“It’s a very unique situation,” Jordan said, “because it’s very unlikely that another gun club is going to move into Cape Elizabeth.”

The gun club was established in a gully off Sawyer Road in 1954, when its nearest neighbors were sprawling farms.

The Cross Hill neighborhood of $500,000 to $800,000 homes grew up around the club in the last decade, though other neighbors have complained about noise from the range over the last 30 years. Some Cross Hill residents have claimed that bullets from the gun range have hit their houses.

State law doesn’t require shooting ranges to be licensed and prohibits towns from enacting noise ordinances against existing shooting ranges. The eight-member Firing Range Committee consists of town officials and community representatives, including a Cross Hill resident.

The gun club’s 2012 safety evaluation was conducted by Quirino “Skip” Lucarelli, an NRA firearms training instructor and shooting range evaluator and designer who lives in South Portland and is a member of the Scarborough Fish & Game Club and the Scarborough Gun Club.

The deadline to apply to conduct the independent safety evaluation is Jan. 28.

“It’s to ease the minds of everyone,” Jordan said of the town-funded study. “Nobody involved in doing the evaluation will have a stake in the outcome.”