Howes in fight of their lives over gun club noise

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT — The 4.5-acre Waterford Fish & Game Club Shooting Range sits less than 50 feet from Route 118, and is across the street from a cemetery and a youth baseball field. (Gail Geraghty photo)

WATERFORD — John and Debbie Howe have spent four and a half years and $35,000 fighting the Waterford Fish & Game Club over the “sporadic torment of gunfire” they’ve endured since the club expanded their Route 118 shooting range.

Seven days a week during daylight hours, they and their neighbors hear bullets blasting apart clay pigeons, police officers target-practicing with automatic handguns and the reports of rifles and pistols being fired. From their farmhouse and 175 acres across the Crooked River up on McIntire Road, a mile and a quarter away, they say they can clearly hear the gun noise inside their barn, work areas and sometime even inside their home, with doors and windows closed.

Their efforts to protect their private property rights have been a “long, expensive and emotionally devastating” experience, one in which they first appealed to the club, then to selectmen, and finally to superior court — all to no avail. Recently, after learning the club is protected from noise lawsuits by a three-year range protection law that dates back to 2006, when expansion began, they dropped their lawsuit, which wasn’t filed until 2010. Last Wednesday, the Howes appeared before the Waterford Planning Board, hoping to at least argue their case before the court of public opinion.

“There isn’t much we can do, but we can listen to you,” said Board Chairman Tony Butterall, as the hour-and-a-half hearing began. Later, member Colin Holme offered a bit more hope, promising to investigate their claim that the club’s expansion of facilities went beyond the 500-square-foot, or 25% limit that should have been considered a “substantial enlargement,” subject to 40-decibel daytime limits on noise under Waterford’s site plan review ordinance.

Debbie Howe stood beside the iMac she’d set up on a side table to play YouTube recordings they’d made of the gun noise at their property and also around Chadbourne Road, off Route 37.

“I see our opposition is here,” she said, referring to around eight club members who sat near the back of the room. Howe, who volunteers at the Waterford Library and had an “empty nest” artist’s studio built in 2004 on one side of the barn, talked openly of how emotionally debilitating the gun noise had become for her.

Then she clicked to start the recording, available by typing “Waterford Gun Noise” on YouTube (The Howes are also in the process of creating a website, www.waterfordgunnoise.net). Debbie Howe could be heard describing the gun noise to a visitor as the sound of gunfire echoed continuously in the background. At one point an unusually loud report, not unlike a cannon shot, could be heard.

“That was enormous,” she said on the tape, as a rifle went off. “It sounds like fireworks, doesn’t it?” John Howe said the hills and open fields around their property create “kind of a perfect amphitheater” for amplifying the gunfire from below.

Turning to the board, Debbie Howe said, “For us, it has become tortuous. It’s not just the emotional distress it’s putting on us; it’s the property devaluation.” The Howes hired a professional real estate appraiser who estimated a 7.5% loss of property value for their property and any other property within a 1.5-mile radius of an active gun range. They say they tried to sell a lot to defray legal costs, but prospective buyers disappeared after hearing about gun noise. Two property owners on their road have been unable to sell their homes after two years on the market.

Safety concerns are also at issue, they say. Any driver who doesn’t know the range exists won’t soon forget it if they happen to drive by at the same time a shot is fired from 50 ft. away. Mourners attend funerals at The Pulpit Rock Cemetery located directly across the street, and children play baseball at the Sandlot field, just a short distance up the highway.

The Howes’ fight began in earnest in 2009, when they, along with over a dozen of their neighbors, formed the Waterford Noise Abatement Coalition and brought their concerns to selectmen. In response, after a series of contentious meetings, the board wrote to the club asking for membership and other records to put to rest the debate over whether a substantial enlargement of use had occurred after permits were granted by former part-time Code Enforcement Officer Albert Holden in 2005 and 2006.

Through their lawyer, the club refused to comply, saying they had not made any enlargement to either the land area of the 4.5-acre property or any structures.

Selectmen did not pursue the matter further, but the Howes did, taking a second mortgage on their farmhouse to pay for a legal challenge in Oxford County Superior Court.

The Howes passed around a report detailing evidence they’d gathered from club invoices during the discovery phase of their lawsuit, which documented over $60,000 in improvements made between 2006 and 2009, including construction of new low and high skeet buildings, a new clubhouse, expansion of both the rifle and pistol firing ranges and addition of a 40-foot storage container. The report also documented a near doubling in club membership — from 93 to 177 members — that coincided with the expansion and improvements at the shooting range, including a sharp increase in use by area police departments for gun qualification training.

The Howes maintain that the clubhouse that the club received a permit to replace in 2006 was not really a clubhouse, but rather, a 70 ft. by 20 ft. indoor shooting range with a few tables and chairs at one end.

Several club members, from the audience, shook their heads and laughed in disagreement, although member David Yates acknowledged that the former building had been used for 22’s. In a follow-up letter to the board after the meeting, the Howes said Yates’ comment was “therefore admitting what was fact, regardless of gun size used.”

Holme said the Howes noise concerns were “a legitimate complaint,” but the board doesn’t have any power to act unless there’s clear evidence of substantial enlargement of land use area. “The use isn’t covered by expansion,” Holme said.

John Howe, a retired mechanical engineer, responded to Holmes’ challenge of proof in his follow-up letter. He said 60 ft. of the 70-ft. length would have been required for the indoor shooting range, plus firing line and targets, leaving only 10 ft. for the clubhouse, or a 10 ft. by 20 ft. space, 200 sq. ft.

“The new 2006 clubhouse is 34 ft. by 28 ft., or 952 sq. ft., plus the non-permitted container storage building of 40 ft. by 8 ft., or 320 sq. ft. Total of new buildings is 1,272 sq. ft. This is an over 600% increase over the old ‘clubhouse’ function, certainly enough to trigger the site plan review and planning board review,” said Howe.

If that wasn’t enough, he asked the board to consider not only physical structures, but land within the parcel on which shooting ranges had been added: two 100-yard firing lines, representing a 33% increase over the original six; two pistol firing lines, representing a 100% increase over the original one that was replaced; and new high and low skeet shooting buildings for a new type of shooting.

In addition, he cited activities like skeet shooting and an annual three-gun shoot, both of which are new and infers commercial use.

“It would seem to us, that any one of these issues would be enough to trigger application of the site plan review. Why can’t the town administration support taxpaying residents who have to endure the noise and have their property values diminish?”

Planning Board members did not indicate when they would complete their review of the Howes’ concerns, or issue a response. The Howes say they are content to wait. They aren’t going anywhere.

“We will not give up trying to regain the peace and quiet we used to enjoy for 30 years prior to 2007, when the gun noise escalated and invaded our property and our lives.”

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