A federal judge yesterday ordered the District goverment to temporarily close its firing range at the Lorton prison complex in Fairfax County, saying the range is a health hazard to nearby residents who have complained that their houses have been hit by stray bullets.
Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. prohibited use of the range until he holds a hearing to determine a permanent solution to the feud between Fairfax County and District officials over the range, which is used to train corrections officers.
"I don't minimize the necessity for law enforcement officers to maintain their proficiency, but I find a decided imbalance in favor of the residents," Bryan said during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. "I'm unwilling to take the chance and have somebody injured."
Fairfax County attorney Edward E. Rose told Bryan yesterday that bullets have been found lodged in at least 10 homes in the Newington Forest neighborhood, which borders the firing range, and scattered on the ground close to a picnic area outside the range fence.
"I am very relieved by the judge's decision," said county Supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth, who represents the Newington Forest neighborhood. "When you have bullets flying through houses and neighborhoods, what more proof do you want that there's a problem?"
An attorney for the D.C. Department of Corrections argued yesterday that the Newington Forest subdivision is protected from the firing range by a dirt wall and that the bullets found in the houses were fired during military SWAT team drills at the range in February, during which high powered ammunition was used. D.C. officials say they have since banned military use of the Lorton firing range.
Rose told Bryan yesterday, however, that a dirt wall behind the firing range has been ineffective against stray bullets. "They're going over the barrier fast and furious," Rose said.
The corrections department uses the range under strict supervision, said assistant D.C. corporation counsel Emory Clark, representing the department. "There's no intent on the part of the District to go shoot up the houses in that development."
"I should hope not," Bryan interjected.
D.C. Corrections Director James F. Palmer said yesterday's ruling has forced him to begin considering alternatives to the firing range, adding, "It's a costly thing to move."
Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity said he plans to urge Fairfax and District officials to settle the controversy without a full court hearing. "I'd prefer to work it out without spending all the time and trouble in court," Herrity said.
Residents in the two-year-old Newington Forest subdivision first reported finding bullets in their house walls about two months ago. Fairfax County officials took their complaints to court after charging D.C. government officials with reneging on promises to discontinue use of the range until it made safety improvements or relocated the 31-year-old facility.