At its November 15 meeting, Goochland County’s Planning Commission voted 6-1 to recommend denial of an application for a conditional use permit to operate a sporting clays shooting range at Orapax Plantation, a 672.6 acre hunting preserve owned by Andrew and Nancy Dykers. The property in question is located between Route 6 and the James River, west of Courthouse Village.
Commission chair Courtney Hyers, District 5, cast the dissenting vote after nearly three hours of a passionate public hearing and extensive deliberation among the commissioners.
Hyers characterized the matter as a “difficult case,” which is a gross understatement. For the past 20 or so years, Orapax has unsuccessfully tried to obtain county sanction to operate the course after operating one in the late ‘80s, which was shut down following a huge outcry from those who lived nearby.
This case illustrates the delicate, and often elusive, balance between property rights of landowners and the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens that land use law is supposed to find.
The Dykers claim that a sporting clays course is permitted under county zoning law as a conditional use for their hunting preserve, which is zoned A-1. Opponents, mostly neighboring land owners, contend that it will, literally, threaten their sanity, quality of life, and property values.
Action on the matter was deferred from the Commission’s October meeting so a sound study to provide objective data about the degree of noise that would be generated by the course could be completed.
Conducted on the afternoon of October 25, results of the study, performed by Backstage, Inc. were presented by Orapax as evidence that the course, which is located in floodplain closer to the river than the previous incarnation of the shooting range, will not generate objectionable levels of noise.
In general, the study indicated that noise from the shooting range was barely higher than ambient, or normal background, levels. (The report is included in the November 15 information packet, which is posted on the Planning Commission page of the county website, www.co.goochland.va.us)
One opponent of the CUP claimed that the test shots were clearly audible over the noise of working bulldozers on the Leake’s Mill Park site, 1.6 miles west of Orapax.
GOMM attended the sound test and listened at Irwin, which is about a mile east of Orapax, halfway between Route 6 and the River. While facing Orapax with hands cupped behind ears, lest any sound be missed, GOMM noticed that traffic passing on Route 6, birds, insects, and even dry leaves blowing in nearby trees made significant noise. Between 2:33 and 2:53 p.m. GOMM heard six separate distant volleys of what sounded like gunfire but felt no associated vibration. Without paying careful attention, those sounds might not have been noticed. Given this experience, it’s difficult to give credence to people from Holland Hills, a mile or so northeast of Irwin, who said they often hear the shooting from Orapax in their backyards
Orapax did a very poor job of presenting its case for the shooting range. They contended that the range will bring more revenue to Goochland by helping a small business expand. Yet, when pressed for details, Orapax stated that no new jobs will be created. Additional tax revenue generated by removing the four acre shooting range site from land use will net less than a $100 increase in real estate tax revenue.
Initially, only a few shooters per week are expected to use the course, according to Orapax representative Neal Kander, the Dykers’ son-in-law. However, the application requests permission for up to 24 shooters per day. That’s a pretty wide range. Orapax wants to operate the shooting range 365 days per year from 9-5.
It is hard to understand why the Dykers would endure the cumbersome and expensive--the CUP permit alone is $750--process to secure a CUP to generate revenue from a mere handful of shooters who will pay $25 each to use the shooting range. The application states that in calendar year 2011, Orapax attracted 1,200 clients from 41 states and seven foreign countries. There were anecdotal contentions that these folks, after they left Orapax, patronized local business to the tune of about $45 per head, but no supporting evidence was provided.
Indeed, some commissioners noted that Orapax made no effort to explain what sort of return on its investment was expected from operating the shooting range.
Supporters of Orapax contended that it provides an excellent opportunity for wholesome and safe use of firearms. Opponents of the CUP, none of whom proposed any curtailment of current Orapax operations, raised concerns about the negative impact of noise on health, property values, and lead leaching into the water supply. Orapax stipulated it will put a lead mitigation plan in place to support the shooting range.
Supporters also pointed out that private shooting ranges are already permitted by right. They said that many people shoot targets in their backyards in Goochland. This time of year, the sound of gunfire is often audible in the entire county. Camp Brady Saunders, operated by the Boy Scouts on Maidens Road, has such a range, which can be clearly heard by its neighbors.
Shooting enthusiasts contended that a sporting clays course will produce many continuous volleys of gunfire and expend a lot of shotgun shells. They said that this is very different from the random sporadic gunfire resulting from hunts at Orapax.
County assessor Glenn Branham, who attended the sound study, stated that, based on what he heard on October 25, 2012, he would not be inclined to reduce valuation on parcels of land in the vicinity of Orapax. He also said that he might reconsider based on actual conditions in the future.
In a previous hearing, Branham stated that he had lowered valuation on some properties on Lee Road in Crozier, which are close to the Department of Corrections shooting range.
The DOC range operates at all hours of the day and is exempt from local ordinances. According to people who live nearby, shooting at the DOC range, where law enforcement officers train with automatic weapons, sounds like a war zone.
Orapax contended that sporting clays is akin to golf with a shotgun and sounds nothing like a war zone.
Opponents also raised the question of enfrocemnt of the CUP. This is a zoning issue, so the Sheriff’s Office will not be involved. Who will count the shooters? How will allegations of violation be handled?
After the hearing was closed, the commissioners wrestled with the matter. Many stated that they believe people have the right to do as they wish on their property, unless it negatively impacts others.
Joe Andrews, District 4, said that he could not support the conditions on the table, but suggested hours from 9-1, which would not impinge on afternoon activities, and an effective period of no more than one year. Tom Rockecharlie, at large, said that he would prefer to require the use of inly lead-free to eliminate all paperwork and envirionmental concerns. Vice chair Ty Querry, District 2 argued that the commission should recommend denial of the application as presented, which they did.
Although many of the commissioners attended the sound test and heard the sound for themselves, they seemed to be swayed by the opponents. Perhaps the comment that resonated most was “would you want this near your home?”
Hyers, clearly exasperated with her fellow commissioners, said that the county A-1 zoning ordinance allows shooting ranges as a conditional use to support agriculture and open space. She worried that “we’re going to get to the point where we’re not going to let people make a living from agricultural use of their land. It is unrealistic to talk about Goochland as if this is a park.” Hyers questioned the rationale for conducting the sound study if the results were ignored.
Her remarks underscore comments made by new residents who claim they moved to Goochland to enjoy rural peace and quiet yet whine endlessly about slow moving farm equipment; the odor of manure spread on fields, and the ugly aftermath of timbering. Agriculture, a big part of “rural,” is often noisy, dirty, smelly and unsightly.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to hold its own public hearing on the matter in January. If the Board grants the CUP without further restricting the conditions, it will essentially make itself a lame duck body, bringing back the bad old days of granting favors to friends, regardless of other considerations.
However, granting a very limited CUP, say with hours of 9-1 Monday through Saturday for a one year period, could provide a sliver of middle ground. This would give Orapax more exercise of property rights and the neighbors a chance to live with actual conditions. Orapax might decide that the sporting clays course is not worth the bother, or the neighbors realize that the noise impact is less than they feared. Or, it could be déjà vu all over again.