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How to attack a Range Operations
Independent Florida Sun
by Jennifer Waters
Gun Range Blows Away Environment, Neighborhood
Fred Johnson won't walk his grandchildren down his street to pick blackberries when they're in season.
"Any kid likes to walk down the road," Johnson says. But "I'm not going to take them down there and get them shot. It's very dangerous out here."
And his problem isn't crime-it's a gun club operating six days a week on land owned by Escambia County.
Johnson, who lives 100 yards from the range, has pleaded for help from Escambia County officials since he moved to his home 20 years ago.
In 2005, Johnson handwrote a letter to Commissioner Kevin White that states in part: "It sounds like a war zone out here. We can't even have a cookout here like other people. Even as I write this the noise is so loud you can't hear your television."
The Escambia River Muzzle Loaders, or ERML, has used a portion of 20
acres of land off Rocky Branch Road in rural Cantonment since 1981.
Thirteen homes, some with horses and creeks, sit along the meandering, unpaved Rocky Branch Road. A short stretch of the road's red clay separates the homes from the firing range, which comprises about nine acres.
Since the range opened, the homeowners' issues have included stray bullets flying in yards and hitting vehicles and power lines, excessive noise, heavy traffic and lead contamination.
Those are among the concerns that prompted Johnson and eight other Rocky Branch Road homeowners to file a civil lawsuit against the Escambia County Commission on Jan. 10. The suit is in the nature of mandamus, which compels government officers to perform mandatory or ministerial duties correctly.
The lawsuit alleges the county is violating its own ordinances and Land Development Code, which does not allow a shooting range on public property leased to private entities for non-public use.
ERML operates under a 1993 management agreement with the county that required the club to find an alternate site for the range by Oct. 1, 1994.
"(The county commissioners) know we have put forth every effort we can to try to find another place to go," says Jim Barnett, ERML's current president. "We have looked at 30 parcels of land in the last year."
Under the management agreement, which either party can terminate without cause with 14 days notice, ERML is not required to pay rent or property taxes. Escambia County has similar agreements with local youth sports organizations. ERML's 1993 agreement replaced a 1981 hold harmless agreement.
"It's comical that it's been going on for this long," says Rocky Branch homeowner Ed Kessler, a plaintiff in the suit.
"I think previous boards didn't want to deal with it, and there may have been political pressure," says Commissioner Kevin White, whose District 5 encompasses the shooting range.
During a county commission meeting last year, White says he addressed Muzzle Loader members in the audience about anonymous death threats he had received in his mail at home.
In response, ERML sent a letter to the Escambia County Commission that offered a $1,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the apprehension and conviction of the perpetrators.
"Despicable tactics such as these are against everything for which ERML and its membership stands," the Aug. 2, 2007 letter reads. But the ERML board of directors asked for copies of the correspondence in case they could identify the handwriting or writing style, if typed, of a member.
The Muzzle Loaders letter also states Commissioner Marie Young received the
written threats, but Young says now that the correspondence she received were regular letters from constituents.
The two commissioners, neither of whom reported the threats to authorities, have been in favor of closing the range.
"(The site) was always intended to be temporary," says Paul Flounlacker, the attorney representing the homeowners. "It's just been an example of the good ol boy system in its worst light."
Barnett, who owns the sporting goods store Gateswood Sports and ran for the U.S. Congressional District 1 seat in 1994, says about 675 people belong to ERML. The group's tax returns for recent years reported 972 members in 2006, 796 members in 2005 and 532 members in 2004.
Originally, ERML's membership was small, and the black powder range consisted of a couple of sheds near Johnson's home, he says. Now, the neighbors contend gun manufacturers display their wares at the range and draw large crowds.
ERML's supporters question why the neighbors choose to move near a gun range.
Kessler, who bought his home near the range in 2005, says his realtor told him the gun range would be gone by the beginning of the next hunting season.
"I didn't know she meant the yak season in Tibet," Kessler says.
According to ERML's 2005 membership list, its members included: Escambia County Tax Collector Janet Holley, county administrative services director Jean Kassab's husband, Jan, and county parks and recreation director Kevin Briski. Briski has reported ERML issues to the Escambia County Commission and now handles mediation efforts between the homeowners and the club.
"I have never been a member," Holley says. The tax collector adds that she has been on the range about three times since 2000 for charity events and gatherings with other public officials.
Next to some officials' names on the membership lists, ERML cites "newsletter only," such as with former Commissioner Tom Banjanin on the 2005 list.
"I'm not a member. I've never been a member," Briski says.
Holley and Briski also do not have numbers, which appear to be membership numbers, after their names like Jan Kassab.
Jean Kassab, whose department has been heavily involved in the ERML issues, admits her husband Jan is a current member of the club. ERML's annual $75 dues extend membership to immediate family members and guests.
Kassab notes that the county administrator and officials have known of Jan's involvement with the group since at least 2003. She also says she has not done any recent work regarding the gun range.
The issues surrounding the firing range have been brought before the Escambia County Commission on at least 18 occasions since 1993, the lawsuit contends.
Sufficient environmental testing has never been done on or near the gun range, where the nearby neighbors receive well water.
The Escambia River lies close to the range, and another river runs about a mile away.
Documents show that state and county officials have been aware of issues surrounding the site, such as the safety concerns, excessive noise and lead contamination, since at least 1993.
In 2002, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection advised
Escambia County not to test the firing range, according to a 2003 memo written by Doyle Butler, the county's division manager for neighborhood and environmental services. The memo references comments made by Bill Kellenberger, former program
manager of the FDEP Hazardous Waste Department, in a May 2002 meeting.
"Without any testing it is prudent to believe the site, due to its past history, is heavily burdened with high levels of contamination," the memo states.
"We cannot elaborate on any of the documents because of pending legal
action," county spokeswoman Sonya Daniels says on behalf of Butler and the County Attorney's Office.
FDEP spokeswoman Salley Cooey says Kellenberger has retired from the
agency. "He's not with us anymore, and I'm not sure any of our other staff knows about that."
Cooey also pointed to laws Kellenberger also referenced, according to Bulter's memo, which prohibit state enforcement of environmental laws on gun ranges.
In 2003, the Florida Legislature enacted a law that allows shooting ranges to self-regulate using a risk-based corrective action approach to site rehabilitation. A 2004 statute prohibits state enforcement of environmental laws and imposes criminal penalties on any governmental officials who target shooting ranges for enforcement.
In other words, the laws allow each gun range to determine and implement its own plan for environmental cleanup without any government interference.
And Escambia County officials helped to get the law passed, according to an e-mail written by County Attorney Janet Lander. In the Oct. 24, 2007 e-mail, Lander wrote to Assistant County Attorney Stephen West: "About three years ago, we worked towards getting legislation passed that would exempt public gun ranges from state environmental liability. In this case, the Muzzleloaders are responsible for the cleanup. I believe they have insurance as well."
While ERML has liability insurance, the group has operated without environmental liability insurance since it opened the range, based upon the terms of the 1993 management agreement.
On Aug. 16, 2007, two months before Lander's above-mentioned e-mail,
the county attorney advised the county commission, according to its minutes: "With regard to the cleanup of the property, the only way that the County can avoid liability is to maintain the property as a public shooting range. "
Lander, who is retiring this month, did not return calls to the Independent News seeking comment.
According to the Cantonment residents' lawsuit, the Muzzle Loaders estimated it will cost $2.2 million to clean up environmental damage to the site.
But Barnett says he is not familiar with that estimate, which he believes is inflated.
"I think those figures were extrapolated from other shooting ranges," he says.
The management agreement requires ERML to maintain the property in as good or better condition than it was when the document went into effect. In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized ERML for developing and implementing an Environmental Stewardship Plan.
A year earlier, county officials sounded an alarm about environmental issues.
"The County received no rent for this land and now we have a problem," Kassab, the county's administrative services director, wrote in a 2003 e-mail to Keith Wilkins, county neighborhood and environmental services director.
In a May 13, 2003, e-mail David Pearce, the county's former safety manager, wrote to assistant county attorney Stephen West. He expressed his concerns about ERML members picking up the lead by hand, which creates lead dust. "There is a great potential for some volunteers to bring home lead dust on their skin, shoes and clothes," Pearce wrote.
Pearce asked if the members wear respirators or other protective gear, and if the practice puts the county at risk for future lawsuits.
On Jan. 13, ERML Vice President Mike Roberts says the group, which wants a long-term agreement with the county, has a proposal for the site that would lower the level from which members shoot and increase the number and height of the barriers to try and prevent bullets straying from the range. Wetlands with plants to treat wastewater and remove metals are also in the plans.
"It's not fancy. This would be 100 percent on us," says Roberts, who estimates the cost of the plan at about $150,000 to $200,000.
A former neighbor, Richard Ramer, told county commissioners in 1993 that automatic weapons were being used on the range. The current neighbors contend the weapons have included a 50-caliber, bullet-fed machine gun and a cannon at the range during the summer.
Barnett says ERML once had a cannon exhibit, but that the group banned full-scale cannons on the site in 1983. He says the group also outlawed automatic weapons in 1989.
"They make us sound like 12 drunks in a clay pit shooting cannons," says Barnett, who pointed to the group's contributions to the local economy, servicemen and women and charitable organizations.
"They're a nice bunch of guys," Kessler says. "We don't have anything against what they do. They always try to turn this into a You hate guns' fight. And that's not the case."
Kessler and several of his neighbors say they own guns. Many of those same homeowners pay dues to participate in a hunting club near the gun range, but they maintain they can only hunt for an hour and a half in the mornings because of ricocheting bullets when the ERML range is in use.
In 2002, John Deese, then treasurer of the kids' group the Northwest Florida Treehound Club, wrote a letter to ERML about stray bullets flying near children and the range's hours of operation.
"The shooting after hours would normally be (from) somebody who's not a member who's violating a law," Barnett says recently. "There's not a lot we can do about that, but we try to."
The neighbors also contend bullets have caused power lines to splice, leaving them without power at least a dozen times.
Disputes over the 20 acres of land in rural Cantonment long preceded ERML.
Records show that in 1944 Escambia County foreclosed on the property owned by Charles Watson, a black man who suffered a severe head injury in 1933 that made him mentally incompetent.
Because Watson failed to pay his property taxes, the county foreclosed on the land due to a $4.39 tax lien.
But Watson's surviving family members, including Norman Watson, a nephew who now lives near the firing range, contend that the family approached county officials on numerous occasions to check on the status of Charles Watson's property taxes.
They learned of the foreclosure, they maintain, when they were in Probate Court after he died in 1957.
Returning the acreage to the Watson family is one the plaintiffs' requests in their Jan. 10 lawsuit, which Escambia County has 20 days to respond to.
The Rocky Branch Road homeowners are also asking that the county be required to comply with its own Land Development Code and ordinances and clean up all lead on the property.
Lead poisoning is a concern for both children and adults. Breathing or eating anything that contains too much lead can cause serious health problems. Young children suffering from lead poisoning can experience learning, behavior and health problems. Adults exposed to too much lead can suffer from high blood pressure, kidney damage, and fertility problems.
The plaintiffs are also asking for attorneys' fees and court costs, and for a court order to close the shooting range.
The state operates a public gun range on Quintette Road in Santa Rosa County that's about two miles from the Muzzle Loaders site.
"They have organized shoots over there and it's a safe place to be," Johnson says.
ERML has members who live out of the local area, such as in Fort Walton Beach, Navarre and Gulf Shores.
"They don't live right here, and they've never done anything to improve it here," Johnson charges. "We feel like second-class citizens, and Escambia County has treated us like that. I have fought (ERML) since 90, 93. I want them to find a new place to go."
Independent Florida Sun
News: Gun Range Update
by Jennifer Waters
ELEVATED LEVES ( Can't spell either) OF LEAD FOUND IN WELL BY POLLUTED GUN RANGE
Lead in a well on Rocky Branch Road has been measured to be about
twice the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's allowable level for
A homeowner near the Escambia River Muzzle Loaders firing range in
Cantonment hired TestAmerica Environmental Services to test the well
The thirteen homes near the gun range all receive well water.
TestAmerica's Jan. 15 report puts the lead level at .029. The EPA's
amount for allowable lead in groundwater is .015.
On Jan. 10, the Rocky Branch homeowners filed a civil lawsuit against
the Escambia County Commission over issues at the ERML site in
Cantonment. The allegations include lead contamination.
"They're allowing us to be poisoned," homeowner Ed Kessler, a
plaintiff in the suit, said Wednesday."We're very, very certain that this (lead) doesn't come from the
plumbing," said Paul Flounlacker, the attorney representing the
The well TestAmerica tested is located at the only home on the road
that is vacant and for sale.
Kessler, who hired TestAmerica, said the last resident to live there
was a pregnant woman with a child who rented the residence.
Kessler said the homeowners are trying to locate the woman, who moved
within past six months.
The Rocky Branch Road neighbors will now have other environmental
consultants review the recent findings and test additional wells.
"It's probably going to result in additional lawsuits being filed."
The attorney may also seek immediate emergency injunctions to close
the gun range, as Escambia County has 20 days to respond to the Jan.
"But getting the range shut down won't stop the pollution," Flounlacker said
NRA GOA CCRKBA
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