Planners okay North Bridgton gun shop plan

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Despite the ongoing opposition of Bridgton Academy, the Bridgton Planning Board gave tentative approval June 23 to plans by an abutter to operate a sporting goods shop selling firearms near the school. Final approval is expected next Tuesday, July 7, of the plans by Mary Tremblay and firearms dealer James Bennett to open the shop in the ell of the Jacob Hazen House at 103 North Bridgton Road, on land bracketed by Academy property.

The board based its decision on advice from Town Attorney Dick Spencer, who said the federal Gun-Free School Zone Act provides exceptions for firearms dealers operating on their own property, regardless of whether it lies within 1,000 feet of school grounds. As long as any guns that are sold leave the business unloaded and in a locked container, Spencer said, the Act is not being violated.

Spencer had argued in an earlier opinion that the Academy was not considered a school under the Act, since it serves post-secondary students. But he revised his opinion after learning from the Academy that the school does serve a small number of high-school-age students. Regardless of its status as a school under the Act, Spencer said, the board does not have the authority to deny the application under the town’s Site Plan Review Ordinance.

Bridgton Academy Attorney David Dow said he didn’t dispute Spencer’s opinion, but that the board should also consider the potential negative impact on enrollment the Academy might suffer if prospective parents and students see a gun shop near the school. “There’s a basis beyond the federal statute” the board ought to be considering, Dow said. “Bridgton Academy is an historic site, it’s been there for over 200 years.” He said, “It would be a real deterrent for prospective students and parents to be walking around the campus and see a gun shop in the neighborhood.”

Dow noted that Spencer had suggested that the town might want to place signs on public roads and property within 1,000 feet of the school to warn the shop’s prospective customers or delivery persons that they are in a Gun-Free School Zone. Dow urged against such signage, saying that would only exacerbate the problem.

The board agreed.

Bridgton Academy Headmaster Grady Vigneau was clearly disappointed with the town’s legal opinion.

“Our whole stance as an Academy has been as a representative and steward of the neighborhood. It’s a federal statute, and how your town attorney chooses to interpret it is entirely up to you,” he said.

Vigneau added that the Academy wants “to stand behind the federal statute, and let things fall where they may.” He said the Academy is proud of what it does, and “We’re obviously very protective and very conscious of our enrollment efforts. At the end of the day it’s a matter of law. It’s not a question of anything other than it’s a federal statute, and we ought to pay attention to it.”

Ted Jennings, president of the North Bridgton Historical Society, gave the board food for thought when he told them the Maine Historic Preservation Commission has included the Main Street of North Bridgton in its inventory of Maine Historic Resources. The inclusion dates back to when the now-closed North Bridgton Library pursued an effort to have its building listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Jennings said the street’s listing in the inventory should give the neighborhood some say on what commercial businesses and signage would be allowed. But Board member Dee Miller said the North Bridgton neighborhood won’t have any special protections until it is designated as a zoning district, under goals now being pursued by the Land Use Planning Committee.

Committee member Bill Vincent said his committee plans to hold a meeting soon with North Bridgton residents to discuss their plans in more detail.

Tremblay and Bennett repeated earlier statements that they will be adhering to all of the safety rules required by licensed firearms dealers, including keeping firearms locked securely with trigger locks. The shop itself with have surveillance cameras and other security measures for windows and doors.

The shop’s sign will be placed in the same location as the Jacob Hazen House sign and state first that sporting goods are sold, with firearms added underneath. The board agreed that they did not want to place any additional Gun-Free School Zone signs, nor does it have the authority to do so, because the street is a state road.

 

 

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