At its inaugural meeting of 2013, the Goochland Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to grant Orapax Plantation a conditional use permit to operate a commercial sporting clays shooting range.
In an attempt to find middle ground by “splitting the baby,” the board neither declined the application, as recommended by a majority of planning commissioners and hundreds of citizens, nor granted the liberal operating conditions sought by Orapax.
No one was pleased with the outcome, so it was a good decision.
At the end of the day, or rather well after 1 a.m. on the day after the hearing began, the supervisors granted the CUP to permit operation of the course between the hours of 10 a.m. and four p.m. from September 1 to April 30. The duration of the CUP was pared to two years and a bond to cover lead clean-up costs was added. The maximum number of shooters per day was reduced to 18 from 24.
Orapax had requested operating hours from nine to five, year round, and especially wanted permission to operate the course on Sunday, its busiest day.
Although a few speakers, including one young woman sporting a large pistol on her hip, tried to make the issue about gun rights, the matter hinged on noise, environmental concerns, and negative impact on land values. The ongoing feud between Orapax owner Andrew Dykers and adjoining landowner James Gottwald added a counterpoint of sound and fury. For the most part, this is a “not in my backyard” issue.
A 436 signature petition opposing the CUP with was presented to the supervisors. Each board member commented that they had spoken to many more citizens than those who filled the board room and an overflow space for the hearing.
Gottwald’s minions were well organized and motivated. It would be interesting to know how close the Orapax supporters, especially those not from Goochland, live to shooting ranges.
Following nearly five hours of civil, and surprisingly engaging, public hearing the supervisors wrangled with their decision.
District 5 Supervisor Ken Peterson, who assumed the board chairmanship during the afternoon’s annual organizational session, got a baptism of fire wielding the gavel at his first public hearing.
Susan Lascollette District 1 contended that the crux of the matter is property rights. Sporting clay shooting ranges are permitted anywhere in the county that firearms may be discharged. Many people have them in their backyards and use them as much as they like with no penalty or regulation, she said. The commercial aspect of the proposed course is the complicating factor.
District 2 supervisor, Manuel Alvarez, Jr., who has probably taken the most heat on the matter, offered revised conditions in the form of a motion. He said that restriction of range operation to hunting season would protect peace and quiet during the summer months.
Many of the detractors contended that the sound generated by the sporting clays course would make their lives miserable. Longtime residents characterized sound generated by a sporting clays course operated at Orapax in the late ‘80’s as loud enough to significantly disturb the peace at their homes and compared the sound to a war zone.
Although a sound study was held at Orapax last October, opponents contended that a handful of shots cannot meaningfully duplicate the impact of the operation of the sporting clays course.
Orapax failed to perform a live fire demonstration.
So many “scientific” facts and figures were presented during the hearing that they lost meaning. Astronomical numbers of lead shotgun pellets were predicted to rain on the shot fall zone and leach lead into the James River. Orapax said there will be little sound impact and most neighbors would barely be able to hear it.
Andrew Dykers diluted some of the numbers by explaining that shotguns become too hot to handle if more than a few shells are fired in close succession.
The negative impact the sporting clays course would have on the value of property and ability to sell it was cited by many speakers. Some nearby landowners who planned to build homes said they will sell their land rather than live within earshot of the sporting clays. One landowner, who had planned to establish a winery and retire to a family owned property on Dogtown Road, said that the sporting clays course would end that dream.
County assessor Glenn Branham said that the assessed valuation of the approximately 40 homes within a one and one quarter mile radius of Orapax could be reduced by five percent if the sporting clays course proves to generate more sound and vibration than the October test.
Some speakers cited the recent eminent domain amendment to the Virginia Constitution and contended that approving the CUP would amount to a "taking" of use of their land for the economic benefit of a private business.
The Board’s decision resembles the action of an exasperated parent trying to quell a squabble between quarrelsome children unable to amicably coexist. Neither side was willing to budge or even consider middle ground, so the board created some.
Comments made by Ned Creasey, District 3 seemed to indicate that the supervisors were frustrated with the lack of accurate, impartial, experiential data on which to base their decision. Creasey said he did not want “to create a monster” and urged Orapax to explore sound muffling techniques to mitigate noise impact on neighbors.
Creasey said that the supervisors don’t need a lot of experts to measure the impact, just the sound of normal operation. Peterson concurred, observing that there was a lot of speculation included in allegations made on both sides of the issue.
Over the years, the county resorted to devious and underhanded measures to prevent Orapax from operating a sporting clays course. The supervisors said they want to be fair to everyone.
Orapax now has an opportunity to prove that it is able to operate the course in an environmentally responsible manner with minimal adverse impact on its neighbors. Adjoining landowners will be forced to base their reactions on the facts of the new course, which is close to the River and downhill from Route 6, not generations-old bad memories.
The two year duration of the CUP is significant. It will be eligible for renewal, assuming it is not revoked for failure to comply with specified conditions, in January, 2015, the year of the next local elections.
This will be a long enough trial to gauge the sound of the course during different seasons and atmospheric conditions. It will also encompass at least one full calendar year to help Branham determine the impact, if any, on property values. All supervisors will undoubtedly receive calls of complaint when the course is in operation, providing ample listening opportunities.
There is little doubt that the Orapax matter will loom large in the 2015 local elections, especially in District 2, whose former supervisor William Quarles, Jr., sat in the front row during the entire session.
County administrator Rebecca Dickson assured the supervisors that the county will be able to ensure compliance with the CUP as a regular zoning matter. This includes overseeing lead abatement measures and somehow monitoring the number of shooters on the clays course and hours of operation.
It remains to be seen if the decision will generate lawsuits.
This was a tough decision, putting the supervisors in a lose-lose position. They took the high road by refusing to give in to either side and did what they believed was best for Goochland.