Bridgton Academy fighting gun shop plans

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

It will be a small hometown gun shop, family-run, with all the security measures required by federal law. But Mary Tremblay’s and James Bennett’s dream of a home-based firearms business has sparked a big controversy in North Bridgton, by virtue of the neighborhood’s historic character and the fact that their property is bracketed by land owned by Bridgton Academy.

At least a dozen people attended Tuesday’s Planning Board public hearing on the couple’s plans to sell firearms and run a retail shop in the ell of the Jacob Hazen House at 103 North Bridgton Road, where Tremblay has lived since 1989. The most prominent in the audience was Bridgton Academy Headmaster Grady Vigneau, who urged the board to deny the application because a retail gun shop operation would include buyers coming and going on the street, and thus would violate the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act.

The Act prohibits possession of firearms within 1,000 feet of a school, and several Academy properties, including the main campus, either abut and/or are within 1,000 feet from the gun shop, attorney David Dow wrote on behalf of the Academy.

“Having a gun shop within the school zone (and abutting Academy property) is not a prudent decision, is a threat to public safety, and is contrary to the spirit of the federal statute,” Dow wrote in a May 28 letter to the board.

The Planning Board sought its own legal opinion, however, and was told by Town Attorney Dick Spencer that the Gun-Free School Zones Act didn’t apply because Bridgton Academy is a post-secondary school. Spencer said the Act only applies to schools serving grades K-12.

That might have settled the dispute, but Vigneau added a wrinkle when he said that each year, between three to six high school seniors attend the Academy, along with international students who are in the 11th and 12th grade. In addition, he said, each summer the Academy runs a summer camp for students in Grades 4 to 7.

“It’s not a lot, but according to law the number of students shouldn’t make a difference,” Vigneau said.

Tremblay said she also did some research, and said the Academy is not considered a school by the state, but rather a CIS-commissioned independent school. She said the Academy is not on the list of institutions of higher learning in the state of Maine. Therefore, she said, the Gun-Free School Zones Act would not apply.

Tremblay also pointed out that their Federal Firearms License has very strict guidelines. They must keep the handguns in display cases locked from behind, keep rifles and shotguns locked with chains and have security cameras and an alarm system. There will be locks on the guns when they leave the building, she said. No one would be able to see inside the shop from windows or doors, she added, and ammunition would be properly stored.

Tremblay said it’s been shown that a gun shop helps greatly in keeping guns out of the wrong hands. “Right now anyone can go into anyone’s home and buy a gun,” she said. She added that a good part of their business will be done online and by mail, and guns aren’t the only items the shop will contain; she plans to set aside space to display her father’s World War II memorabilia.

“We’ve never had any problem in the area,” said Tremblay. “The neighbors keep an eye on things. And this is rural Maine. Hunters in vehicles drive by all the time (with guns) during hunting season.”

While several neighbors spoke against the shop, one woman from Fryeburg supported the couple’s plans. “The parents who send their children to Bridgton Academy have to understand it’s a rural area. Hunting, fishing, shooting and target practicing — it’s the very core of who we are here,” she said.

Naturopathic Doctor Julianne Forbes, a North Bridgton resident, said she and some of her neighbors are considering applying to have North Bridgton designated as a State Historic District because of the many historic buildings there, including the Jacob Hazen House.

“North Bridgton is rather unique — it’s one of the gems of Greater Bridgton,” Forbes said.

The board voted to recess the public hearing until their next meeting on Tuesday, June 23, in order to get further legal advice. Anne Krieg, director of planning, economic and community development, said she will also ask Bridgton Academy to send her school accreditation information. She’ll also look into precisely how retail gun shops are treated under the gun-free law, and how the law measures the 1,000-foot setback.




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