Gun ranges in Pierce County set sights on legal protection

Tacoma News TribuneAugust 12, 2013 

Shooters take aim on the public pistol range at the Tacoma Sportsmens Club in the Fredrickson area.

PETER HALEY — Staff photographer Buy Photo

As suburban growth encroaches on local shooting ranges, gun club members worry their neighbors will try to shut them down.

That’s why shooting enthusiasts are urging the Pierce County Council to make a preemptive move to protect gun ranges from potential noise and nuisance complaints and lawsuits.

Council members are expected to adopt a measure Tuesday that says shooting ranges in unincorporated parts of the county would not be subject to civil actions and criminal prosecution in such cases.

“We know people have raised issues and complained about the gun clubs,” said Jim Williams, of the Pierce County Sportmens Council.

People need reliable and safe places to practice shooting, said Williams, vice president of the council and a member of the Tacoma Sportsmen’s Club. “Eventually, it might prevent lawsuits to shut one of the clubs down.”

The changes would protect five shooting ranges:

* The Tacoma Sportsmen’s Club, in the Frederickson area.

* Paul Bunyan Rifle and Sportsman’s Club, on South Hill near Graham.

* Sumner Sportsmen’s Association, between Sumner and Orting.

* Upper Nisqually Sportsman’s Club, outside Eatonville.

* The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s practice range, near Roy. 

The measure would not apply to ranges in University Place and Gig Harbor because they are within city limits.

If approved, ranges would be exempt from decibel limits and subject only to noise and nuisance regulations in place at the time they opened or were constructed, said council attorney Susan Long. Some ranges potentially could be exempt from limits on hours of operation, she said.

County code currently exempts shooting ranges from noise decibel limits from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. The county hasn’t yet researched whether some ranges pre-date those hour limits, which raises the possibility that firing could be allowed earlier than 7 or later than 10, Long said.

Dwayne Curtiss, president of the nearly 3,000-member Tacoma Sportsmen’s Club, said respect for neighbors will continue. His club’s shooting hours are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“We’re not going to shoot early,” Curtiss said. “We’re not going to shoot late. We’re not going to do anything that’s going to cause problems for anyone.”

Jim McAfee, president of the sportsmens council, said Pierce County would become the first county in Washington state to adopt this kind of protection for shooting ranges.

“This is something the public needs,” McAfee said. “It’s better than our streets becoming shooting ranges.”

Williams said he’s not aware of any lawsuits filed against shooting ranges in Pierce County. But he cited a dispute in Kitsap County between the county and the Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club in part over noise.

Likewise, Curtiss said he’s aware of only two noise complaints made to the Tacoma Sportsmen’s Club in the past six years. They came from residents of a mobile home park at one end of the club’s shotgun range, Curtiss said. The club also operates rifle and pistol ranges.

County Council member Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, said shooting ranges have a responsibility to be respectful of neighbors, and she has some concerns about hours of operation. Even so, she said she plans to support the measure.

“I don’t want to say, ‘No, you can’t have them at all,’” Ladenburg said.

“People moved into these neighborhoods knowing that there’s a gun range or shooting range in the vicinity,” she said.

Williams said he approached council member Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, about the revisions after several failed attempts to get the same changes through the Legislature and signed into state law.

“It’s adding an extra layer of protection,” Roach said at the committee meeting. People move near shooting ranges, decide they don’t like the noise and then try to shut them down, Roach said.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department operates its own range near Roy. Sheriff Paul Pastor told the committee he supports looking for ways to preserve ranges while encouraging safety and noise abatement.

“Ranges, as population increases, can become an endangered species.” Pastor said. “I think it’s very important that ranges be safe and ranges do all they can to reduce the amount of noise they make. But so far, there are no noiseless guns.”

Matt Hamilton, chairman of Graham Land Use Advisory Commission, said he supports the proposed protections.

Shooting ranges may cause noise for neighbors, “but they provide an open space for their communities,” said Hamilton, whose committee advises the county.  “They were there first.”

The Paul Bunyan Club range sits less than 200 yards from Graham and is more than 60 years old. It offers firearms safety and hunter education programs.

Since the 1990s, development has moved up to two edges of the 80-acre site for the Paul Bunyan Club range.

“They built the houses right up to our fence,” said Mark Curtis, president of the club on South Hill.

Curtis said the range is surrounded by a buffer of trees on the property, which includes a working tree farm.

“The sound doesn’t carry as much as people believe, and there’s not that much of it,” he said.

Curtis said no one has complained about noise to his club’s board of directors in his seven years on the board. But there’s no guarantee the club won’t face complaints in the future.

He said the changes before the County Council are needed “to protect gun clubs from organizations that feel they’re a nuisance by their general presence.”

“If we are being a good member of the community,” Curtis said, “we should be allowed to operate.”

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 steve.maynard@ @TNTstevemaynard

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