Neighbors question plans for shooting ranges near Md.’s Sugarloaf Mountain

There’s no culture clash over guns at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, the popular hiking and tourist destination on the Frederick-Montgomery County border.

Like many of his neighbors, Harry Roderick owns rifles and shotguns for hunting and occasional target practice at his home on three acres on Thurston Road. But he and other residents say that doesn’t mean they want three shooting ranges and a firearms training center catering to law enforcement agencies to open less than two miles away.

“It’s not the gun issue,” said Roderick, 67, an auto mechanic and Army veteran. “It’s just the wrong location. People in this area located here because it’s peaceful.”

The proposed site is a farm where landscaping executive William Valois and his two sons want to build two outdoor shooting ranges and one indoors, open to the public for virtually any kind of long gun or handgun. Plans include a 30-foot tower from which police SWAT team members can sharpen sniping skills, classes in gun use and safety, wilderness survival training, and meditation and yoga therapy for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress.

The family, doing business as Old Line Arsenal, promises state-of-the-art safety features and acoustic barriers to keep bullets and sound from escaping the outdoor ranges. The facility will take up just 15 interior acres on the 262-acre farm, with the outdoor ranges more than 1,300 feet from the nearest neighboring property, screened by landscaping.

“It’s going to be quiet, unobtrusive and a very neat thing for the area,” Andrew Valois said.

That’s been a tough sell to the more than 400 households within two miles of the range. At a zoning hearing Thursday that stretched from early afternoon to 11:30 p.m., Valois’s claims met with ripples of derisive laughter.

The proposal has sparked emotional opposition from agricultural and tourism-related businesses, as well as horse and dog boarding establishments whose proprietors say the gunfire will cause anxiety and even disease. Others express concern about the potential damage to Sugarloaf itself, operated by the nonprofit Stronghold. The recreational area was founded in 1946 by Gordon Strong, who owned much of the land and left it for the public to enjoy.

One hiking trail runs directly above the proposed range site. Nearby is the ornate Strong Mansion, booked for weddings through 2015.

“Nobody will want gunshots in their wedding videos,” said Christopher Goodwin, owner of the Comus Inn, a popular restaurant in Dickerson, near the Montgomery County entrance to the mountain.

About 300 people signed up to speak Thursday at the Frederick Board of Zoning Appeals, crowding the hearing room and two overflow chambers. The board, which must decide whether the shooting range is an appropriate use of the land, extended deliberations to Tuesday in order to give everyone a turn. If the board approves the proposal, the county planning board will review a detailed site design.

The land is zoned to allow a shooting range, which county code defines as an area for the safe use of pistols, shotguns “or any other similar sport shooting at targets.” But the code also says that any range must be “in harmony with the appropriate and orderly development of the neighborhood,” which opponents say the Arsenal proposal definitely is not.

“It’s a great idea in the wrong place,” said John Ward, 53, who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Safety concerns loomed large in Thursday’s testimony, which included warnings that mishaps can occur even at the safest ranges. Lester Roane, a ballistics consultant retained by the environmental watchdog Sugarloaf Alliance, said the “lethal range” of a 50-caliber bullet is 5 1 / 2 miles. Others mentioned last week’s accident in Arizona, where a nine-year-old girl lost her grip on an Uzi and killed a gun instructor.

The hearing also featured dueling acoustics experts who described the factors that determine how far the sound of gunfire travels in granular detail — everything from bullet caliber to humidity, topology and leaf cover on trees.

Arsenals’s expert said that at the border of the range, test shots registered between 56 and 59 decibels — about the sound of normal human conversation at a distance of three feet. Readings at a series of key locations, including the Comus Inn, picked up no sound. Consultant Scott Hansen, acknowledged, however, that multiple rounds of gunshots could be noisier, pushing the sound toward the state limit of 65 decibels. According to plans, the outdoor ranges could accommodate 30 to 40 shooters at a time.

Opponents pointed out that the area already is home to gun clubs, in nearby Thurmont and Tuscarora. A new indoor range called the Machine Gun Nest, where customers will be able to rent machine guns for target shooting, is scheduled to open in Frederick later this year.

William Valois said he is just as concerned about noise as anyone, and has planned the project accordingly. “These are my neighbors too,” he said, gesturing to the hearing-room audience. “If there’s a problem with the noise, I’ll be the first one complaining.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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