CAPE ELIZABETH — The Spurwink Rod & Gun Club spent $110,000 last year making its outdoor shooting range safer and quieter, yet club leaders say their organization is still being targeted by neighbors and others who want the club closed for good.

The 60-year-old club’s ongoing conflict with newer residential neighbors coincides with legislation that would fully grandfather more than 100 fish-and-game clubs across the state that supporters say are increasingly threatened by rural development.

Spurwink’s leaders point to the town assessor’s recent decision to yank the club’s tax-exempt status. Neighbors and others sent dozens of emails over several months, urging the town to assess property taxes that will cost the club more than $4,200 in the coming year, a move the club has appealed.

Its leaders also say neighbors caused the club’s insurance coverage to be canceled last fall. After the police chief suspended shooting at the gun range in July, a move that forced the club to step up safety improvements, a man who said he was “a concerned abutter” visited the club’s local insurance agency, then called its out-of-state insurance carrier, saying that the club wasn’t insurable. The carrier dropped the club.

Noyes Hall & Allen Insurance in South Portland found other coverage for the club, said Jim Noyes, an agency partner. But it came with a 26 percent premium increase to $6,800 per year, which is more than a third of the $17,785 in dues that the club collected last year, said Tammy Walter, club president.

Walter and other club supporters say the relentless action against the shooting range borders on harassment.

“They’ve tried everything to shut us down and now they’re just trying to bleed us dry,” Walter said. “They saw what we had to do to reopen and they didn’t think we could do it. But we got it done and now they just want us gone.”

DECADE-OLD CONFLICT

Set in a wooded gully on outer Sawyer Road, the clubhouse and its shooting range were once surrounded mostly by sprawling farms. The club came under increasing scrutiny about a decade ago, when the Cross Hill Road neighborhood of $500,000 to $750,000 single-family homes sprang up next door.

As neighbors’ noise and safety complaints mounted, the Town Council passed a shooting range ordinance in 2014 aimed at the only gun club in town. Though state law prevents municipalities from imposing noise restrictions on grandfathered shooting ranges, the ordinance required the club to apply for an operating license and meet certain safety conditions to get one.

The ordinance also required the club to increase its liability insurance from $1 million to $3 million per incident – higher than offered through the National Rifle Association or carried by most gun clubs in Maine – though the club never had an incident to claim, Walter said.

As the club went through the licensing process last year, an NRA-recommended safety expert found that its outdoor range was unsafe for both members and neighbors. Deficiencies included a lack of structures that would prevent stray bullets from leaving the property, protect club members from being hit by accidental discharges and keep nonmembers from accidentally or intentionally entering the 18-acre facility.

Police Chief Neil Williams suspended shooting at the club in July and Walter promised to fix the problems. The Town Council gave the club an operating license in October on the condition that it meet the ordinance’s safety standards.

Williams allowed the club to resume shooting in December, after it made numerous recommended fixes to its 25-yard pistol range, helped by $38,000 in grants from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the NRA. The club plans to make similar improvements to its 50-yard and 100-yard ranges in the future.

The fixes so far include a brand-new shooting shed that’s lined with sound-deadening concrete, rubber and insulation, which has reduced gunfire decibel readings by at least 20 percent, club leaders said. Shooting lanes are now covered by steel-reinforced canopies that block visibility of the sky and are designed to contain any stray bullets.

“We went above and beyond to address neighbors’ concerns. We went over Mount Everest,” said Mark Mayone, the club’s public information officer.

NEIGHBORHOOD TENSION

Jim Richard is a Cross Hill Road resident who emailed Assessor Matt Sturgis repeatedly throughout last summer and fall questioning the gun club’s tax-exempt status. Ed Nadeau, another Cross Hill neighborhood resident, also emailed Sturgis on the subject. Neither responded to calls requesting comment for this story.

“The information we set forth in this letter was reviewed with an attorney,” Richard wrote in an email to Sturgis last August. “It was his legal opinion that under Maine statutes … the club has no legal basis for exemption from property tax.”

Soon-to-be Town Councilor Sara Lennon emailed Town Manager Mike McGovern on the matter in September, when she was a private citizen and before she was elected to the council in November.

“Is there a reason why the gun club does not pay taxes?” asked Lennon, who doesn’t live near the club. “Has the basis for that historic decision been revisited recently? Seems unfair that the most disruptive organization in town contributes nothing to our tax base.”

Sturgis ultimately agreed with Richard and the others. In December he sent a letter to Walter, the club’s president, saying that it would have to start paying property taxes in 2016. He noted that the club has a 501c7 tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service rather than the necessary 501c3 status of a charitable and benevolent literary, scientific, religious or educational organization.

Lennon said she doesn’t recall sending the email to Sturgis or why she inquired about the club’s tax status, but she challenged Walter’s assertion that some people want to shut it down.

“I don’t want it closed, nor do I think other people want it closed,” Lennon said. “I don’t see it as a black-and-white issue. I think (the neighbors) want it safe and so it’s not so loud that they can’t enjoy their backyards.”

Lennon said she hasn’t seen the improvements at the shooting range, but she has found club members to be “reasonable people,” and she understands the neighbors’ point of view.

“They bought houses in that neighborhood and didn’t realize what was there,” Lennon said, adding that she hopes the two sides can continue to work together to address concerns.

PENDING LEGISLATION

State Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, has seen the improvements made by the Spurwink club.

“They basically built an indoor range outside,” said Corey, an NRA-certified range safety officer who is a member of fish-and-game clubs in Scarborough and Falmouth, where he’s also a board member.

Corey and other gun rights advocates say sport shooting ranges across Maine are facing similar challenges and worry that they might be forced to close if they can’t afford to make the improvements required at the Spurwink club.

“Most sport shooting ranges were established before zoning regulations,” Corey said. “We already have a (state) law protecting shooting ranges from noise ordinances, so what’s happening now is people are looking for other reasons to shut them down.”

Corey, backed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, has sponsored L.D. 1500, a bill “to protect and promote access to sport shooting ranges.” The bill is scheduled for a hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee at 3 p.m. on Feb. 23.

The bill would ban laws or lawsuits that would limit the operation or cause the closure of existing shooting ranges, but it wouldn’t insulate ranges from suits based on negligence or recklessness in the operation or use of the range.

“Some of the clubs are having trouble with people moving in, building housing developments right next door, and using safety as a concern,” said David Trahan, the alliance’s executive director. “But these clubs play a significant role in public safety because they provide a safer place to practice and learn the proper use of firearms.”

 


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