KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
SHAFTSBURY -- The legal battle between the Hale Mountain Fish and Game Club and its neighbors, Owen and Kathleen Beauchesne, did not show many signs of coming to an end soon during a Development Review Board hearing Wednesday.
An Environmental Court decision issued Oct. 4 by Judge Thomas Durkin directed the gun club to submit site plans and approval from the DRB on 14 improvements done at the shooting range since 1989. Representatives from the club gave testimony to the DRB on what those improvements entail, while the Beauchesnes contended that more unpermitted improvements have been made, and cited noise concerns related to what they say has been increased activity at the shooting range over the years.
The Beauchesnes have also appealed the Environmental Court decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, according to the Vermont Superior Court Environmental Division.
The DRB opted to continue the Hale Mountain hearing to its next meeting, giving the board members time to review the documents they had been presented with.
John Tiffany, a member of the club’s board of directors, told the DRB that the town fire and highway departments have submitted letters saying the club is not a significant burden, as has the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department, which used the range for training. He said there is ample parking and no more than a dozen vehicles are present at a shooting event. The formal shooting events occur on weekends a few times a month, he said.
Charles Stewart, another club director, said the largest gatherings are the annual meetings, when about 30 to 35 members show up. Some years ago, one annual meeting drew 180, but that was an anomaly. He said the club has roughly 184 registered members.
Owen Beauchesne said he bought his nearby farm in 1987 and keeps horses there and runs a therapy center for autistic children that incorporates horse riding. He asked the DRB to make a site visit, claiming the plans submitted by the club do not reflect the extent of the improvements made.
"You folks are being hoodwinked," he said.
Beauchesne said the amount of shooting has increased since he bought his property and the lengthening of the rifle range has led to the echo from gunshots off Hale Mountain becoming worse. Beauchesne said the club never sought proper permits for these things and neighbors were not consulted on ways to mitigate the noise.
Paul Williams, chairman of the club’s directors, said he has been attending events at the range for decades and said if anything activity at the range has gone down over the years. He added that the length of a shooting range does not affect the sound the gun makes, and said the structures on the property are little more than roofs to keep rain off people’s heads, rather than buildings as Beauchesne had characterized them.
Other neighbors gave testimony to the DRB as well. Lorraine Mattison said she has been a neighbor of the club for many years and said the club issued her a notice against trespass in 2005, which she found hurtful.
Williams explained that people named in the 2005 lawsuit against the club were given the notice, which included the Beauchesnes and another person. He said it was done for liability and legal reasons and added that the club wishes to come to an amicable solution with its neighbors.
DRB member David Mance asked Owen Beauchesne what he was looking for. Beauchesne said he wants a zoning administrator "who will do his job."
"I want no discretion unless they work with the people adjacent to Hale Mountain," Beauchesne said. "If the zoning administrator won’t step up and do his job, we’ll take it to court and he’ll issue the order to have it taken down."
He said he would like the club to explain the need for the buildings on the site, and said some would likely stay up. He reiterated his request for the DRB to make a site visit to see what has been done.
Beauchesne said in an interview that he would like to sit down with the club and have them come to his farm to hear the noise levels he says the shooting activities generates. He said he would like the noise reduced to its 1980s levels.
According to Beauchesne, the improvements the club is seeking approval for can not be granted as they represent expansions on pre-existing non-conforming uses. He said he was not advocating buildings be taken down, but if the noise level cannot be addressed to his satisfaction, the club would have to go "back to the drawing board."
DRB Chairwoman Megan Donkers said it is likely the DRB would conduct a site visit as part of its proceedings.