Planners hold fire on gun club expansion bid

A key issue is whether the Milton-Freewater area club can be legally considered a ‘firearms training facility.’

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PENDLETON — The East End Rod & Gun Club’s application to continue operations and expand onto additional land met with no decision Thursday after a packed public hearing before the Umatilla County Planning Commission.

The Milton-Freewater club, which has about 800 members, has operated a shooting range since 1994 on 85 acres of leased property. The expansion request would add an additional 35 acres on the same property to the range.

After the club’s land use request was submitted, the neighboring Rea family filed an objection and requested the commission hearing.

The family, which farms north of the range, and their attorney argued Thursday that a firearms facility should not be operating in an area zoned for exclusive farm use, and cited noise, safety and cost concerns.

“This is not the place, nor will it become the place down the road for an industrious firearms training facility,” said Nathan Rea, who farms on the adjacent property with his father.

At issue is an Oregon law passed in 1995 that allowed any firearms training facility in existence on Sept. 9 of that year to continue operations.

County staff cited the law in their preliminary findings and approval for the gun club’s expansion.

But Patrick Gregg, the attorney for the Reas, argued the county had applied the law too broadly. He said the statute did not allow for the dramatic growth the club has seen over the past 20 years, and also questioned whether the club was providing the training and certifications necessary to meet the legal definition of “firearms training facility” in 1995.

“What we have is no longer a few guys out trap and skeet shooting,” said Rea.

If the 1995 law does not apply, a gun range can be permitted in an exclusive farm use zone as a public park if the county can show the use does not force a significant change in farm practices or significantly increase their cost, according to Tamra Mabbott, county planner.

Addressing this portion of the law, the Reas and Gregg argued that calling the range in advance to notify them of planned irrigation activities and waiting for shooting to stop before beginning farming would significantly increase farm labor costs.

Nearly 50 people attended the hearing, most of them members of the gun club. Club President Verl Presnall and club attorney and member Andy Millar, along with other members spoke about safety practices in place on the range.

“If any member out on the range sees somebody downrange, there is an immediate cease-fire called,” said Millar. “We have to be safe to be able to operate that range with the number of members that we have.”

Club members also testified that shooting to the north toward the Reas’ property does not occur on the range. Many spoke to the benefits the range provides, citing the training provided specifically for youth and women, the use of the range by local law enforcement and the economic activity from out-of-town visitors who come for competitions.

In addition to testimony at the hearing, the county received more than a dozen letters expressing support for the gun club, as well as five in opposition, most from neighboring landowners.

After questioning club members and the Reas, the planning commission decided to leave the record open so additional evidence could be submitted and continue the hearing on Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m.

Several commission members asked both sides to present further evidence related to the nature of the club’s operations in 1995. Commissioners also said they wanted additional time to read a recent court decision cited by Gregg relating to local regulation of shooting ranges.

“We have a lot of information we haven’t digested yet,” said commission Chairman Randy Randall.

The commission may decide to approve the club’s expansion, approve only its continued operation or approve neither. With an approval of either continued operation or expansion, the commission may also impose restrictions and conditions, such as prohibiting shooting during particular hours or requiring noise breaks to be installed.

Commissioner John Standley said he was sympathetic to concerns about noise coming from a club with 800 members.

“We just need to figure out how to make this palatable,” he said.

The continuation of the hearing is open to the public, and comments may be submitted to the Umatilla County Department of Land Use Planning, 216 SE 4th St, Pendleton, OR 97801 or via email to planning@co.umatilla.or.us.

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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