WILLISTON, Vt. — The Vermont Supreme Court ruled recently on a long-running noise dispute between the Town of Williston and the North Country Sportsman’s Club in a decision the gun club characterized as a victory.
In a statement, gun club President Bob Otty said the ruling affirmed state law protecting existing shooting ranges from “regulatory overreach” by municipalities. The town issued two citations to the gun club for noise ordinance violations in 2015, prompting the club to sue.
Otty said the Supreme Court ruled that a town cannot use noise “as a justification for other regulatory mechanisms.” Otty also interprets the ruling to say a town cannot require a shooting range to enter into an agreement about operating hours.
Town Manager Rick McGuire said Thursday the ruling leaves the situation “a little murky.”
“Right now we have an ordinance that still calls for a written agreement,” McGuire said. “We’re going to have to do some sort of modification to the ordinance. I don’t know what that would look like.”
Attorney Hans Heussy, who represents the gun club, agreed the June 2 Supreme Court ruling “could be clearer.”
The club and the town had a written agreement specifying operating hours beginning in 2004, McGuire said, but the club let the agreement lapse about two years later because it was unhappy with requirements the town wanted concerning “special events” held on Saturdays.
The court said the town does not have the authority to “prohibit, reduce or limit” shooting at the range that falls within the club’s historical use. The club has hosted skeet shooting for more than 50 years.
According to the ruling, the town can, however, “attempt” to apply its noise ordinance to shooting at the range that exceeds historical use, unless there’s a “voluntary” agreement between the town and the club expanding hours of operation.
“We’re happy,” Heussy said. “We’re going to operate as we see fit within the guidelines established by the Supreme Court going forward.”
The court ruling cites a baseline for hours of operation established in 2006 as the definition of historical use. Heussy said that baseline is in the range of 15 to 25 hours per week of shooting on Wednesday and Sunday, plus an occasional special event on Saturday.
Heussy’s interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling is that the club doesn’t need a written agreement with the town as long as it doesn’t do anything inconsistent with the 2006 baseline.
“We don’t believe we have to restrict ourselves to anything but hours of shooting,” he said. “If we want to have special events on Friday we can — as to what day they’re on, that’s our decision.”
McGuire, the town manager, has a different take. McGuire said the club received an exclusion from the town’s noise ordinance passed in 2004 as long as there was a written agreement between the two parties defining hours of operation.
He said the agreement specified hours for shooting on Wednesdays and Sundays, plus special events on Saturdays. What constituted a special event was never defined.
McGuire said around 2006 the gun club increased its activities, holding a special event every Saturday.
“I called the president and said, ‘You know, we don’t have a definition, but this doesn’t feel like a special event to me, every single Saturday,'” McGuire said.
The gun club cut back after that, according to McGuire, but neighbors found out the written agreement had expired and complained to police in May 2015, leading to the citations that sparked the lawsuit.
Heussy said the gun club disputes McGuire’s contention that its activity increased over historical norms.
“They don’t feel terribly welcome in the town,” Heussy said of the gun club.
Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com