By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Thetford — A lot has changed since 1995, when the town renewed a 20-year lease with the nonprofit Upper Valley Fish & Game Club for 176 forested acres near Thetford Center.
The club had a small shooting range on the town-owned parcel, used mainly to sight-in hunting rifles, and the lease was $1.
Since then, Thetford’s town coffers have tightened. Taxes have risen. The guns used at the range have evolved, firing faster and louder, all to the chagrin of many nearby residents and businesses. People are more aware of environmental issues, such as the potential toxicity of lead bullets left in the soil. And new neighbors have moved in.
Now, all those factors are coming into play as the club seeks to renew its lease with the town.
“We’re under a microscopic eye, from one degree to another,” club secretary Rhett Scruggs said recently, standing under the shelter at the 200-yard range with club president and fellow Thetford resident Al Stone.
Thetford resident Ted Levin, who has lived on property across Five Corners Road from the range for almost 20 years, is one of a number of people on the other side of the microscope. He supports the fish and game club in principle and appreciates the hunting community, he said, but it’s the inescapable noise generated by rapid-fire weapons with large magazines that he finds inappropriate.
That type of noise has increased dramatically in the past five years, Levin said, adding that about 20 neighbors have signed a petition complaining about noise and other issues. He said he’s aware of one gun dealer who brings his clients to the range to demonstrate weapons.
“Sometimes,” Levin said, “it sounds like I live in Fallujah.”
It is against this backdrop — and an outcry from citizens with additional concerns who feared the lease-renewal process was being rushed along without them — that the Selectboard now considers whether to renew the lease with the club, and if so, for how long, for how much money and with what new limitations and requirements, if any.
The noise issue echoes a similar situation in Hartland, where a dispute involving a state-owned range could go to court.
Thetford Selectboard Chairman Stuart Rogers said last week no decisions have been made about renewing the lease, although a working group of neighbors, club members and other townspeople has presented a draft renewal lease for the board’s consideration. The board expects to release its own draft at its Nov. 17 meeting, with time set aside for public discussion the following Monday.
“Everything is still on the table,” Rogers said. “Those (working group) meetings typically went to 11 o’clock at night. There were concessions made on both sides, there really was.”
State scientists from the Agency of Natural Resources took soil samples at the Thetford range last month to test for lead, but those results aren’t expected for at least a few more weeks, Rogers said.
Indeed, the lease isn’t up until mid-2015, but the club initiated the process early, Stone said, so that it would have time to make safety improvements sought by state officials.
The range is important, Stone and Scruggs said, because it provides people a place to shoot safely. Not too long ago, Scruggs said, a bullet was discovered in a camp near the range, and further investigation showed that it had come from the direction of Route 113 — in other words, Scruggs said, probably somebody shooting in a backyard.
“Well, if the range is not here, there are going to be more people shooting in their backyards,” he said.
The club is already hoping to replace dirt pits behind the range’s three targets with sand for safety reasons, and is also interested in building several new berms to provide additional safety and perhaps some sound muffling.
Neighbors, such as Levin, have little confidence in the potential efficacy of those changes.
Rough estimates for the berms alone range from $10,000 to $20,000, Scruggs said, a tall order for a 200-member club with an annual adult membership fee of $15. (Members also donate time and money for activities like mowing the grass and hosting events, including a popular children’s trout derby and an ice fishing competition on Lake Fairlee.)
Additional improvements could be out of reach. But, Stone said with a laugh, “the first step is to get the lease. If we don’t get the lease, it ain’t going to cost us anything.”
The club is working to make some concessions, Scruggs said, though perhaps not everything asked by everybody.
“I can’t say that we necessarily can disagree with a neighbor who doesn’t like the noise — that’s an issue with a gun range,” Scruggs said, adding that the club has tried to honor some requests from neighbors by agreeing with portions of the draft lease.
“Probably not to the full extent that they would like,” he said, “which of course, number one, would be no range.”
Sitting in his home last week, Levin, a writer, said he doesn’t want the club to shut down. As a naturalist, he understands the need for hunting and appreciates the hunting community. But, he said, it’s the automatic weapons, which wouldn’t be used for hunting, and the semi-automatic weapons using magazines that exceed the size allowed by the state during hunting season, that create the most noise and are the most unpleasant.
“I’m being a real NIMBY on this,” Levin said, referring to the ‘“not in my backyard” acronym, “because it is my backyard. But the bottom line is, it will affect resale values when the time comes to sell or to pass it on to my kids, and that’s an issue.”
Nobody was firing at the range as he spoke, but less than an hour earlier, shots were easily audible along the road to his mailbox.
Residents at a Selectboard meeting last month, and some who signed the petition, have also complained about heavy use of the range by police departments for training, which tends to be especially loud, requesting that departments rotate to other ranges.
The noise issue has also come up in Hartland, where residents in that town, and across the Connecticut River in Plainfield, say soundproofing at the state-owned range is ineffective. Residents are starting to organize, and could take the issue to court, arguing that the noise decreases the value of their properties.
Several parties to the Thetford debate, including Rogers, said they are paying attention to the dispute in Hartland and are hoping to come to an agreement before a conflict gets to the point of legal action.
Proposed amendments to the Thetford lease include stricter hours, including banning firing before 10 a.m. on Sundays, and some limits on weapon types, including banning fully automatic weapons, exploding targets, drones and .50-caliber Browning machine guns, or BMGs, which are particularly loud.
Scruggs said club officials in the working group had voted to continue to allow machine gun use, but respect the vote of the working group.
Levin said the recommendations were a good start, but he would be happier if there were no shooting allowed on Sunday, and he wants magazine capacities to match those allowed by the state during hunting seasons.
“When we moved there in 1996, it was a place for people to get ready” for the state’s hunting seasons, he said at the Selectboard meeting. “It’s not the ‘fish and game and assault weapons’ club. It’s the fish and game club, and I would like to see it return to that.”
Additional proposed amendments voted on by the working group include five-year reviews of the 20-year lease — Levin would prefer it to be reviewed every year — and increasing the cost of the 20-year lease from $1 to $5.
“We’re closing in on them,” one resident at the Selectboard meeting quipped.
The point about costs and taxes has raised red flags for another neighbor, Chris Wren, who said he felt the renewal process was being rushed along without enough public participation. The board appeared ready to renew the lease a couple of weeks ago, the neighbors said, until residents raised concerns and the process was slowed.
Wren, a retired foreign correspondent for The New York Times , said he pays more to bring his grandchildren to Treasure Island, a Lake Fairlee access point for residents, for one day than the Upper Valley Fish & Game Club has paid the town for using 176 acres for 20 years. That, he said, should at least be discussed.
“It’s not the idea of shooting that bothers me,” he said. “That’s a lot of property.”
At the Selectboard meeting in late October, several other residents asked whether a 200-yard shooting range is the best use for 176 acres of town-owned land, expressing interests in activities such as skiing and hiking on the land.
Club member Doug Stone, one of Al Stone’s brothers, countered at the meeting that club members are good stewards of the land and that there’s plenty of other public property in town for residents to use.
“That land is being used for recreation more than any other piece of land, (except) maybe the ball fields a little bit more, but that would be a close call too,” Doug Stone said.
Scruggs said any increase in the lease would translate into an increase in membership dues.
“I understand from some of the shooters that we’re the least expensive range in the state,” he said. “We aren’t here to make money. We’re a nonprofit … so we don’t try to stockpile money or anything like that.”
Wren, a gun owner, said most residents might agree that a friendly lease is the right idea, but he’d like to see it discussed at Town Meeting.
Concerns have also been expressed by Jim Zien, CEO of the Aloha Foundation, which runs camps along Lake Fairlee and Lake Morey . Visitors to Ohana Family Camp, which hosts families and weddings about a mile from the range during the summer, have sometimes asked about the noise, Zien said.
“People hear it and wonder what it’s all about, and when they hear it’s live weapons fire, they wonder if there’s any safety issues involved for them,” said Zien, who lives on Thetford Hill.
He has experience with lease-writing from previous professions and said the current lease is “deficient” in a lack of protection to the town for “uses that may be risky or cause liability,” among other shortcomings.
He hopes the next lease is an improvement.
“This was a club that was originally established as a (place for) recreational things that we do here in Vermont, and that it was intended for the purposes of better educating adults and possibly youngsters about ways to do those activities in ways that are safe and fun and rewarding,” Zien said. “I would say that what they’re doing now goes way beyond what I expect was the original intent of a fish and game club.”