Gun club president answers noise concerns

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

NORTH WATERFORD — Several years ago, when John and Debbie Howe first began complaining to selectmen about gun noise from the Waterford Fish and Game Club shooting range, President John Conti went around with a clipboard to neighbors.

He knocked on perhaps two dozen doors within a radius of a mile and a half from the Route 118 range.

“Not one person said they had a problem with the noise. Not one,” said Conti, interviewed at the club property on Friday. “They said they could hear it from time to time, but it didn’t bother them.”

What did bother some residents, said Conti, was not excessive noise — it was the excessive, unrelenting and unfair nature of the campaign of opposition being waged by the Howes, which included a year and a half of expensive litigation after selectmen declined to get involved.

Conti said the Howes’ Oct. 18 appeal to the Waterford Planning Board, seeking a new investigation into charges the club’s improvements should have undergone site plan review, is based on false information and is just another attempt to harass the nonprofit private club. He said that ever since the club decided to replace their clubhouse in 2006 and make other improvements to the shooting range, they’ve been mindful of safety and responsive to noise concerns.

“We want to be good neighbors,” said Conti, who attended the hearing with other club members but wasn’t given an opportunity to fully respond to the Howes’ presentation. On Friday, he offered a full tour of the range, explaining the improvements made since 2006, and why.

The old clubhouse, a long building sited perpendicularly to the highway beside the present rifle range, did contain an indoor pistol range, he acknowledged. But it nonetheless served as a clubhouse, with tables and chairs at the Route 118 end. In any event, Conti said, its replacement was legally permitted, and the new clubhouse is a considerably smaller building overall.

Conti said there have always been two distinct 50-yard pistol ranges on the left side of the property, not one as the Howes maintain. The difference, he said, is that previously, the two ranges were separated by an earthen berm, and now concrete blocks separate the pistol ranges. The earth was moved over to the right side of the property, where the rifle ranges are, to better protect the middle skeet-shooting area against ricochets.

Also contrary to the Howes’ presentation, the club, established in 1954, has always offered skeet shooting, Conti said. The difference is that the sport is now more automated, with legally-permitted construction of high and low skeet buildings containing remote-controlled trap-ejecting machines.

Previous to their construction in 2005–2006, the skeet shooting was done from one concrete enclosure set into the ground, and the traps were set by hand, said Conti. When the Auburn Gun Club disbanded because of complaints over a skeet-shooting incident involving a passing canoeist on the adjacent Androscoggin River, the Waterford club bought their skeet machines, which are capable of ejecting up to 360 skeet at a time, loaded into a carousel, he said.

And yes, Conti said, the club’s membership, and use of the club by gun enthusiasts and area police departments, has increased since improvements were made. But records kept by the club of rounds of skeet used each year since January of 2006 show an actual decrease in skeet-shooting in 2009 and 2010, he said — not an increase as the Howes allege. The club does not track other types of shooting.

Conti said he went back and counted every round of 25 “birds,” or clay tablets, paid for by members, in preparation for the Howes’ lawsuit in Oxford County Superior Court. The records show 2,487 rounds from January to December in 2006, 2,760 in 2007, 2,909 in 2008, and then dropping to 2,459 in 2009 and 1,448 in 2010.

Conti also disputed the Howes’ claim of a sharp hike in membership since 2006, pointing out that the club had between 81 and 114 members from 1996 to 2005, with membership at 122 in 2006, 110 in 2007, 126 in 2008, 145 in 2009 and 179 in 2010.

Although at one time up to four police departments sent officers to Waterford to qualify, now only two departments — Bridgton Police and the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department — hold group memberships.

He attributed the jump in 2010 membership numbers to the club’s installation of a chain-link fence in front of the property with a combination gate accessible only by club members. Conti said the fence allows members to feel confident they will not be “harassed” by the Howes coming onto the property. He said one member, in fact, has filed a protection from harassment claim against John Howe after allegedly being verbally accosted by Howe from the other side of the fence.

Conti said Chadbourne Farms owns much of the property surrounding the shooting range, and the noise didn’t become an issue until after it was logged three or four years ago. Since September of 2009, in response to concerns, the club agreed to new rules to limit the impact. These include opening an hour later, at 9 a.m., on Sundays, limiting police department training qualifications to weekdays, closing the club when the nearby Waterford Inne has a wedding reception, and no full automatic firearm use on Sunday unless the firearm has a suppressor on it.

In addition, next spring the club is planning to build a roofline extension, or “eyebrow” around the rifle range and place sound insulation under the roof, which Conti said should reduce the sound level by at least three decibels.

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