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Shooting range debated at county meeting

It was standing room only for the June 30 meeting of the board of commissioners as they discussed a controversial special exception request to allow for a firing range on Flat Shoals Road in Concord.  The special exception request was made by Steve Burge who asked for commissioners to allow an outdoor, public shooting range on his 25-acre property as a General Home Occupation. Commissioners voted to table the decision until an environmental impact survey is received but asked to have that information in time to make the decision at the July 28 commission meeting. Commissioner James Jenkins suggested postponing the decision and not allowing 50 caliber or fully automatic weapons. Commissioners discussed Spalding County which is creating a policy on firing ranges before approving a similar request. County attorney Rob Morton said commissioners can list out any requirements that would be in the policy as conditions to be met but that it will take time to draft the ordinance and time for the two readings required prior to adoption. Commissioner Tim Guy asked the board to ‘consider the community and the people’s concerns about bullets coming over the berm,’ he said. ‘Take into consideration whether you would want this in your back yard.’ A public hearing was held at the June 30 meeting and several citizens spoke in favor of and in opposition of the special exception and another public hearing will not be held at the meeting when the decision is made. ’This was brought up at the board of appeals and the first motion was for denial and the second motion was to hold off for environmental review testing the current lead levels and noise ordinance inquiries,’ said zoning director David Allen. ‘The staff recommendation was for approval with these conditions: an annual business license, all signs conform to the sign ordinance, that small safety signs be posted at regular intervals along the front of the property, all applicable state and federal guidelines must be continuously met, shooting range gun safety rules and regulations must be posted and copies signed by all participants, the backstop berm and side berms must be at least 18 feet high and oriented with the opening facing Flat Shoals Road, vehicle parking shall not be behind the backstop and must be at least 50 feet from the side berms, operating hours will be 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturday hours can only be between 12 noon and 2 p.m. and the special exception will not be transferrable to future property owners.’ Some members of the board of appeals recommended confirming the soil’s current lead content, requiring regular lead testing, not allowing any weapons equal to or greater than a 50 caliber weapon, not allowing skeet shooting, changing hours to one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset and requiring the gates be locked when the range is closed. Allen noted that Pike County has a large number of gun enthusiasts and currently there is no regulation of shooting weapons on properties here. ’People can gather friends over and shoot in their back yard for as long as they want with no restrictions on that,’ he said. ‘There is no real public shooting range except for the sheriff’s range which is not open to the general public. Issued raised at the previous meeting included the amount of noise caused. Safety was obviously a concern for neighbors as well as concerns about lead pollution in the environment. There were also claims this would lead to a depreciation of property values.’ Steve Burge introduced himself as a 27-year veteran, police officer and disabled U.S. Army veteran who served tours of duty in Afghanistan. He said in the past two years, he has helped certify the Molena Police Department and Meriwether Sheriff’s Office. ’Safety issues are going to be our first concern,’ he said. ‘Over the past year, we have shot with up to 45 officers and I’ve checked with the sheriff’s office and there have not been any complaints about noise, stray bullets, traffic or anything. We will be open to the public for private lessons and will be very structured. We won’t just be open to the public to come in and start shooting. Our intentions are to teach a classroom portion on safety and then take them to the range to shoot. At this range, 90% of the shooting will be with pistol ammo. The range will be six lanes wide with one lane for sighting in deer rifles right before deer season and also for sighting in new rifles for law enforcement.’ Several others spoke in favor of the shooting range, including Cameron Kerr who will provide an environmental assessment and who is in charge of the range’s management plan. Benjamin ‘B.C.’ Standard of Upson County spoke about Burge’s knowlege and abilities. ’He is trying to do this for the overall betterment of this community and for the training of the citizens in this community,’ he said. ‘I think he’s doing the right thing and I think he’s going about it in the right way.’ Meriwether County’s Chief Wesley Favors said Burge’s training made better officers for their county. Molena Police Department chief Novin Darsey said Molena’s officers were also qualified at Burge’s property and Burge’s range ‘is safer than most ranges I’ve been on. Steve has taken steps to make sure it’s safe and I think this range is a great thing for Pike County.’ Many residents in opposition of the shooting range attended the meeting, with several speaking during the public hearing to ask commissioners not to approve it. ’I live downrange of the firing range and I don’t think it is appropriate for the area,’ said Jim Ramseur who asked everyone who lives within a mile of the range to raise their hand. ‘This would be a detriment to health safety and the welfare of the neighborhood. It’s dangerous and being downrange, I’m fearful that I’m going to get hit or my house will be hit. If there is just four hours a day of shooting that’s 14,000 rounds a day, 86,000 rounds a week and over four million rounds a year – and that’s just from one lane.’ Scott Klinger submitted a petition with 60 names on it to commissioners. Beth Jones said law enforcement officers can use the sheriff’s shooting range for training. Gary Weldon said he lived about four miles from a Henry County gun range and heard it on a regular basis. He requested that if it passes, no fully automatic weapons or 50 caliber weapons be allowed and suppressors used when possible. Doug Lacey said the issue is not gun rights or gun safety but the quality of life for Pike County citizens who live near the shooting range. ’This needs to be in a commercial location, not an area zoned A-R,’ he said. ‘I love guns but I want them in the proper venues and this is not the place for an open air gun range.’ Leslie Jones said that a neighbor who was not able to attend the meeting is fearful for her grandchildren walking from the school bus stop to her house and believes one of them could be hit with a stray bullet. She said she would be afraid to allow her own daughter to play outside with her cousins and friends.

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