Issue 34 Long Range Goals Amy Bushatz 0 COMMENT Want to Build a Gun Range? You’ve Got Your Work Cut Out for You Lead image courtesy Nicholas Iocco It’s not that their neighbors hate shooting or guns. They all “like to shoot,” and many of them “have no problem with guns” — or so they say. They aren’t those people. It’s just that they don’t want to live near a shooting range. That, at least, is the not-so-neighborly attitude many range owners encounter when they try to open their outdoor shooting complexes: opposition from the “not in my backyard” crowd. The folks trying to keep ranges away have the ultimate American super weapon at the ready. They don’t have to use the typical political showdown over gun rights, state weapons rules, regulations, or background checks to get their way. They have the power of bureaucracy. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who has felt this force more acutely than former Marine sniper Alex Hartmann. He stumbled into the gun business after leaving active duty and found success with Ridgeline Outfitters, a company that caters to marksmen who don’t mind a trek to New Hampshire to score gear and modern instruction. With plans in his pocket for a state-of-the-art shooting park, he signed a purchase agreement for the perfect 200-plus acre parcel in Winchester, New Hampshire, with the sale contingent upon zoning approval. He did everything you’re supposed to do when you’re a savvy entrepreneur trying to open a business that might face an uphill battle for approval. He hired lawyers, did his homework, and poured thousands of dollars into noise studies and other preparations for facing the area’s zoning board. Alex Hartman of Ridgeline Training emerged from a zoning board meeting in Winchester, New Hampshire, to find his truck had been keyed, presumably by a neighbor opposing the construction of his proposed shooting center. Photo by Rob Curtis. “My vision for it was this destination shooting facility that was open to the public,” he says. “You’re never going to make everyone happy. You could want to build a church somewhere and people are going to bitch about it.” But Hartmann made one fatal mistake: He underestimated the enemy. Perhaps he just didn’t know about the six years’ worth of zoning appeals his would-be neighbors brought upon one businessman before the Dunkin’ Donuts was able to break ground in early September of this year. Or maybe he hadn’t heard about the local neighborhood association that launched a red-tape zoning war with an asphalt company that’s still ongoing. Whatever the reason, Hartmann couldn’t have imagined what would happen next. Right before the zoning committee was scheduled to make a decision in the spring of 2017, that he believed would likely be in his favor, he received a notice in the mail from his land seller: The deal was off and the land had already been sold to a group of undisclosed alternate buyers. The buyers turned out to be a few in a group of anti-range neighbors organized under the name “Winchester Citizens Against Ridgeline.” And they meant business. Members of that group, such as local resident Sander Lee, had poured thousands of dollars, much of it raised from donations, into their own sound studies to fight Ridgeline. They saw Hartmann’s project as an encroachment on their own rights as landowners. Photo by Matt Stagliano Lee insists that the neighbors like guns. They just didn’t like Ridgeline. “We live in a very rural setting that we live in by choice. We have 5 acres because we personally wanted the beauty and quiet that came from living in a rural setting,” said Lee, who personally raised over $16,000 for the Ridgeline project. but said he wasn’t one of those who bought the property. “We’re not anti-gun, we’re anti-location.” Hartmann thought he knew the neighbors’ fighting style well. He had already faced them at zoning committee hearings and through their social media and online anti-Ridgeline campaign. But he was blindsided by the notice that the sale was off and the land no longer available. That was the end of the Ridgeline project in Winchester. With no land to build on, the zoning application was dead. Hartmann is far from alone in his zoning battle. In Vermont, PRS enthusiast Nicholas Iocco has found that death by red tape is, perhaps ironically, not even a little stealthy. His troubles started in 2016 with a notice in the mail from his small town of Whiting that he was guilty of a zoning violation. Nicholas Iocco hoped to host precision shooting matches on his property in Whiting, Vermont, but his venture, Green Mountain Rifle Challenge LLC, became entwined in a net of red tape constructed by the local zoning board, neighbors, and the state. Photo courtesy Nicholas Iocco. What Iocco wanted to do on his rural farmland was simple enough. With over 90 acres of terrain right outside his back door and permission from his neighbor to shoot over a portion of their adjacent 500 acres, Iocco knows his land is perfect for long-range competitions. The shooting space that he calls home is also hard to come by elsewhere in New England, making it the perfect place to host region-wide matches that can attract the cream of the PRS crop. After registering Green Mountain Rifle Challenge LLC with the state, Iocco purchased 40 AR500 steel targets, a liability insurance policy, and a bunch of swag with his company name and logo. All told he dropped about $16,000 and settled into a swing of hosting several competitions a month with a $50 buy-in, as well as renting out his land for Vermont state police training, he said. But then his neighbors started to complain about shooting noise and scared animals. They said the business was unsafe, concerns that Iocco said are unfounded. Not long after the local zoning officials got involved, the state of Vermont also sent notice. If he wanted to operate his land as a business, they said, he would need commercial status, which would cause both his property taxes and the property taxes of his neighbor to skyrocket. “The neighbors are all like ‘Oh I’m a member of the NRA, I like the shooting, I own a bunch of guns’ and all this stuff,” Iocco said. “They can complain all they want, that’s their right, but they make it seem like it’s the end of the world.” Rather than deal with the taxman, Iocco abandoned the idea of making his range a profit-turning business, and now just wants to charge enough to cover his expenses. He says what he wants to do is operate a hobby. He argues that businesses make money, they don’t just break even, but hobbies are a different story. Even that requires city permission, lest he face potential fines and problems later. At the time of this writing he was still waiting on a verdict — and still shooting and inviting friends over to do the same. Up in Alaska, Chase Eckert is trying to avoid the battle Hartman and Iocco have faced. If Vermont and the Live-Free-or-Die State are gun friendly, Alaska is paradise. Guns aren’t just a way of life on the Last Frontier, they’re a daily safety necessity, even near the state’s largest city. Locals generally agreed that a teen mauled to death by a bear during a popular trail race near Anchorage this year may have lived had he been packing. But bureaucracy can still kill you even in Alaska, a place renowned for its lack of regulation. You don’t need permission to open a pig farm in a residential neighborhood, but you’ll have to cough up $1,000 for a special-use permit if you want to exceed 70 decibels on a commercial shooting range in the Matunsuska-Susitna Borough. That assumes, of course, all goes well and your permit is granted. After you apply, the Borough will put your plans through a battery of tests to determine exactly what kind of nuisance your new business is likely to be. As in other municipalities in the Lower 48, the public gets a chance to file their comments and speak at a public hearing. After those steps, a seven-member board makes a determination. In most circles in Alaska, even a hint of being anti-gun is political suicide. But that’s especially true in the reddest of the red Matanuska-Susitna Valley. If neighbors in any part of the Anchorage bowl region are going to be pro-shooting range, it’s there. Iocco’s own 90-plus acres combined with 500 more from an agreeable neighbor were to make up the Green Mountain Rifle Challenge shooting area. He envisioned a range that would’ve hosted precision rifle matches and given the Vermont State Police a place to train. Photo courtesy Nicholas Iocco. Eckert has billed his planned outdoor range just off the busy Glenn Highway as Livefire AK, a “shooting theme park” featuring machine gun rentals. Eckert grew up shooting rabbits on the property, and recently started renting it out as shooting space for a local tactical shop. In the summer he plans to use the range for a mix of instructor and rental lanes. In the winter it’ll serve as a much-needed outdoor class space. But like Iocco and Hartmann, Eckert made a key miscalculation. He thought his neighbors would be at least OK with the improvements he’s planning to the currently vacant property, which has been in his family for over 40 years. It’s recently become host to vandals and discarded needles. Developing the property will keep those people out, he says. He was wrong. Even before the project started, his closest neighbor, whose bedroom sits only a few hundred yards from the planned instructor lanes, began contacting the Borough and notifying the local paper of the upcoming project. A second neighbor is rumored to have asked other nearby property holders to sign a petition against the project, although he has denied doing so. “We’re going to proceed as best we can to be a good neighbor,” Eckert said. “Frankly, we can do whatever we want on our land.” Officials with the National Rifle Association, who advise future range owners on best practices and how to navigate zoning boards and applications, say walking into the neighborhood approval process without enough preparation is a common mistake. “Traditionally the people who are building ranges are … passionate about shooting, but they may not necessarily be business people,” said Elizabeth Bush, who manages recreational programs and ranges for the NRA. “We try to educate people so they go into the situation with as much information as possible, in a professional way.” Chase Eckert and his brother, Hayden Leavitt, plan to open their shooting range, LiveFire AK, in Palmer, Alaska. They recently started construction on the property, which is currently home to a gravel pit. Photo by Amy Bushatz. Eckert thinks his odds with the zoning board are pretty good, and he’s willing to take a risk. He started construction on his new range without his permit in hand, a gamble that he hopes will pay off in the long term. The permit is only required if he ends up going over the 70 decibel mark, and he’s confident his planned noise abatement techniques will keep him under. Even if it takes a war, he said he plans to continue to work with the city to make his range a reality. He won’t give in easily, he said. That stubbornness isn’t just an Alaskan trait. In the battle against bureaucracy there’s one thing the zoning people and neighbors would be wise to remember: Shooters are persistent. Iocco plans to continue to use his land for PRS whether his neighbors like it or not, and regardless of what the zoning board says — a right which Vermont protects, he says. “If nothing else, Vermont does protect landowners and friends who shoot on their own property. Even if we can’t have liability insurance, even if that has to all go away, even if I don’t charge anything and allow them to come shoot, under Vermont law they would still be protected,” he said. “Right now I couldn’t care less if I could make money doing it.” And Hartmann won’t let getting chased off of his original site plan keep him down, either. After the surprise sale he sued the seller for breach of contract, although he’s barred by a nondisclosure agreement from revealing any details of the suit or its outcome. He said he’s got his eyes on a new location for the Ridgeline park, declining to discuss any details. But that’s probably smart. After all, you can’t let the opposition know what you’re up to.