Key point enough to shoot down proposed firing range

Tuesday evening will see the continuation of the public hearing of the Frederick County Board of Zoning appeals about the highly controversial and hotly contested training center and firing ranges proposed for a 262 acre property which is zoned “Resource Conservation” and is directly adjacent to the Sugarloaf Mountain preserve.

Old Line Arsenal, LLC (aka Old Line Academy) is”Requesting a Special Exception to establish a Shooting Range/Club.” The “Shooting Range/Club” would be a large and busy private commercial training facility which their application describes as including an 80ft x 250ft building with classrooms on two floors and an indoor range in the basement, two separate outdoor shooting ranges (300 yards and 500 yards), a shooting tower, a 144 car parking lot, as well as parking at shooting range buildings.

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(Please find a variety of background information and media coverage at the links at the bottom of this page.)

There is only one reason that this matter has not been resolved yet. The first hearing on the matter was scheduled for July 24th. More than 400 citizens showed up for the hearing (by all accounts, almost entirely in opposition to the request), but the applicant asked for a delay, which was granted in a 2-1 vote of the board.

That decision did not please many or most of those who had gone through the trouble of attending the hearing that evening, and they weren’t too happy about the hearing be rescheduled for 1:00pm on a workday, either. Despite the inconvenience, however, hundreds of people showed up again last Thursday afternoon, filling the large first floor hearing room, the Winchester Room on the second floor and the third floor hearing room, as well.

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You can watch any or all of the hearing via stream video here:

Afternoon session: http://frederick.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=5&clip_id=4501

Evening session: http://frederick.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=5&clip_id=4502

After the short presentation by county staff, the presentation by the applicant, a lengthy period of cross-examination by many individual citizens and the attorney for a number of other area residents during the afternoon session, public testimony was taken throughout the evening. The hearing was stopped, not long after 11:00pm, well after it was clear there were far too many people waiting (in some cases all afternoon and evening) to speak than would be possible that night. Public testimony will pick up again on Tuesday evening for everyone who signed up, and then, after than, anyone else who would like to testify.

The following is an incomplete list, in no particular order, and without many of the details, of the concerns and objections raised by the those who testified, so far:

• Impact on property values: A well-known and well-respected appraiser, with decades of local experience testified that the facility would lead to an immediate and sustained decrease of 15% in the value of other properties in the area. He felt it was likely more than that, but that he could guarantee the 15% number.

• Impact on the historic Stronghold Preserve: Sugarloaf Mountain is a Registered Natural Landmark because of its geological interest and striking beauty,” and there are many concerns about the effect on the area, including but not limited to hikers who enjoy quiet and scenic hikes on trails there, some of which come very close to the proposed facility.

• Impact on area businesses: Besides Stronghold, many other businesses in the area could be affected, including the Sugarloaf Mountain Winery, Comus Inn, various religions retreats, a number of farms with horse riding, training and boarding, and the Greenbriar Veterinary Hospital and Pet Resort.

• Impact on the Sugarloaf historic district: The historic district encompasses approximately 17,000 acres, in Frederick and Montgomery counties, including what would be the training center and firing ranges.

• Impact on public safety: “Accidents happen,” and there were concerns expressed about stray bullets, which can travel considerable distances.

• Effect on horses: There was a significant amount of testimony about the effect of gunfire on horses, and the effect that could have on the nearby properties and businesses where people board and ride their horses.

• Impact on the environment and wildlife: I could include a separate list of these concerns, which included the threat to on Bennett Creek (such as lead contamination), local air pollution and the frightening of bald eagles, which have returned to the area and are attracted to the Bennett Creek corridor.

• Hours of operation: The applicant has said they plan to operate the facility from (:00am to 5:00pm, Monday through Saturday, but current law would allow for much later hours and seven days a week. What is to stop the hours from expanding when the business has a significant financial incentive to expand them?

• Not a 2nd amendment issue: Many of those who testified in opposition to the proposed facility expressed their long membership in the National Rifle Association, and/or referred to their own hunting and target shooting, and their general and strong support for gun rights, before asserting that this is not about gun rights, but rather about planning and zoning, and whether or not this place, in this zone, is the right or proper place for this sort of facility.

There were quite a few other issues and concerns raised by one or more who testified, including the legal definition of “Shooting Range/Club,” the lack of certainty about exactly where various buildings and outdoor ranges would be placed on the property, additional traffic on narrow country roads and more.

At the foundation of some of the concerns listed above, the biggest issue raised by speaker after speaker was NOISE!

Certainly it isn’t surprising that the most intense concern — and fear — was that the proposed shooting ranges and firing tower would generate noise that would be audible, and perhaps even quite loud, over greater distances and a much more considerable area than what the applicants suggest.

Offering their own testimony, the applicant and a couple of different representatives of the applicant, echoed the assurance found in the applicants original request on July 2, 2014, which includes:

“Noise from the outdoor ranges will be controlled by the placement of the ranges a great distance away from the public and neighboring properties, as well as the use of landscaping to absorb and deflect sound.”

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The original request did not include one or two additional sound mitigation elements that have since been added to the plan. One has to assume that is because the overwhelming public opposition to the proposal provided some motivation to better address what they knew was the single greatest concern of the community.

Between the postponement of the initial hearing, which was scheduled for late July and postponed at the request of the applicant, Old Line Arsenal decided it would also be a good idea to run a sound test, which they administered on August 3, 2014, and described in their presentation.

It would seem obvious that a good, thorough and well-documented sound test would be absolutely necessary when a request is made for a Special Exception to allow two large outdoor firing ranges and a shooting tower in any area zoned Resource Conservation.

One can’t help but wonder why that wasn’t done before the original hearing was scheduled.

After all, the General Criteria for a Special Exception includes:

Operations in connection with the special exception at the proposed location shall not have an adverse effect such as noise, fumes, vibration or other characteristics on neighboring properties above and beyond those inherently associated with the special exception at any other location within the zoning district;

When the attorney for the applicant made his statements, he clearly and pointedly reminded the Board of Zoning Appeals that the “Shooting Range/Club” is a permitted use in the zone, and that a “special exception SHALL be granted” of and when the board finds that that applicant meets all the criteria.

And there’s the rub!

Based on what has been presented to the Board of Zoning Appeals, so far, there is no way that they can adequately determine if the criteria have been met.

Given the nature of the sound test that was conducted by the applicant on August 3, 2014, there is simply not sufficient or convincing evidence that the “Noise from the outdoor ranges will be controlled by the placement of the ranges a great distance away from the public and neighboring properties, as well as the use of landscaping to absorb and deflect sound.”

First of all, considering the substance and significance of the broad public concern and objection, it is difficult to understand and accept that any test designed and administered solely by the applicant themselves would be deemed adequate to provide the basis for approving such a large facility where concerns about noise are at the heart of many of the objections.

At the very least, it would seem wise and recommended, even if not required, to have a much more thorough and complete test, that could be fully observed by representatives of the local residents and businesses, and/or a test that could be administered by the county, at the expense of the applicant.

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You can watch the applicant’s representative, Scott Hansen, describe the test on the video of the hearing if you have questions or doubts about it. But, in essence, on August 3, 2014, the applicant performed a sound test.

The weather was described as a typical, partly cloudy, warm summer day with mild breezes.

It was mid-summer, and the forest was in full foliage.

Shots were fired by one person, standing on the ground in one spot (which may or may not even be the location of one of the two outdoor ranges).

Five different types of guns, each with one type of ammunition, were fired, one shot at a time.

Reading were made on a sound gauge or decibel reader in “several” locations (5) around the property.

The applicant’s representative stated for the record that the readings “generally ranged between 56 and 59 decibels,” with none exceeding the “Maryland state environmental noise standards” of 65 decibels.

Anticipating the concern that the test was in mid-summer, with full foliage, Mr Hansen noted that the “leaves on the trees can help extend the propagation of sound,” and that it “should” be less noisy during the six months or so when the trees are bare.

Mr. Hanson also acknowledged “additive effects” of multiple shooters, but said (and demonstrated by clapping his hands) that even though there might be many shooters, with a variety of guns, the shots would not actually or usually be at exactly the same time.

So, I would ask any reader, but especially the members of the Frederick County Board of Zoning Appeals, if they believe and are convinced that that particular test, conducted in that manner, on that one day, and the other comments and assurances of the applicant, provide a sufficient basis for certainty that the related criteria has been met.

Everyone in the room, including the members of the board, heard considerable testimony, both anecdotal and scientific, from citizens and experts, that raised many and serious questions and doubts about how accurate and useful that particular test was to serve a the basis of approving a facility that, as we all know, will not be shut down later if it was wrong.

In no particular order:

• The test did not and can not tell the community or the board what difference the wind will make, from one direction or another.

• The assurance that the noise could or “should” be less, and not travel as far or farther, when the leaves are not on the trees is ridiculous, based on common experience and scientific reports. Some trees, in certain situations, depending on wind direction and speed, etc., can have a small amplifying affect on some sounds, but there is a huge gap between that and a blanket assurance that the forest canopy in place made the gunshots more audible at the various locations.

• In responding to specific questions, the applicant’s representative did have to acknowledge that a variety of other conditions could amplify the sound, including the hard ground or frozen snow in winter.

• While five different guns were used in the test, they did not include any weapons as loud as some louder weapons that could be used. The son of the applicant, Andrew Valois, said that “calibers will be limited to what is allowed by law” and noted that “most people don’t own 50 caliber rifles.”

• Substantial additional testimony showed the test to be woefully inadequate, raising issues about the way sound can propagate up and away, and be heard clearly over longer and even great distances due to topography, wind speed and direction, humidity and more.

The people who live in the area, and the businesses that operate in the area, and the members of the Board of Zoning Appeals are being asked by the applicant to accept their one-time, very limited, incomplete and inadequate sound test as a key basis for approving a large facility that will never be shut down if the test proves wrong.

Even if you completely trust the description of the results of a test administered by the applicant only, with no other observers or oversight, it utterly fails to meet an acceptable standard, and provide any real certainty…especially given what is at stake.

And, regarding other gunshots heard in the area, it is ridiculous to compare (as the applicant did) large, busy shooting ranges and a shooting tower, with a wide variety of weapons, operating all morning and afternoon (at least) six days a week, with the occasional local target shooting or the fact that people hunt in the area. Hunters, of course, have a very limited season, and spend almost all their time being as quiet as possible, before possibly firing a shot or two.

On the basis of the inadequate sound test and too-blithe assurances, the Board of Zoning Appeals can not be reasonably, or even remotely, certain enough about the potential sound, the level of the sound or the directions and distances the sound might travel.

And so, at the very least, the request for a “Special Exception” should be denied.

If the applicant should choose to come back again, with a similar request in the future, I would recommend that they pay for a truly serious and comprehensive and credible sound test, and that it be observed or conducted by someone else…at their expense.

The continuation of the hearing is at 7:00pm on Tuesday. It may or may not be possible for the Board of Zoning Appeals to hear all the testimony and render a decision at that time.


Sugarloaf Alliance on the web
Sugarloaf Alliance on Facebook

Old Line Academy on Facebook

Frederick County Board of Zoning Appeals Staff Report as a pdf file

Board of Zoning Appeals Agenda as a pdf file

Frederick County Comprehensive Plan

Sugarloaf Alliance press release: “Sugarloaf Mountain at Risk!”

Frederick News Post
Sugarloaf residents resist firing range plan during nine-hour hearing
Friday, August 29, 2014

Envision Frederick County
Old Line Academy spokesperson out of line
Thursday, August 28, 2014

Frederick News Post, Letter to the Editor, by Nick Carrera
“Gun range approval would weaken zoning regulations”
Sunday, August 24, 2014

Frederick News Post
“Board postpones hearing on gun range
Friday, July 25, 2014

WJLA
Overwhelming public attendance, outrage postpones meeting on proposed Frederick gun range
July 25, 2014

Frederick News Post, Letter to the Editor, by Margy Simpson
“Firing ranges and horses don’t mix”
Thursday, July 24, 2014

Frederick News Post
“Sugarloaf area residents fight plans for shooting range”
Wednesday, July 23, 2014