Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

Flying lead: Couple, Dade City gun range battle over contamination cleanup

DADE CITY

Step onto the homestead of Paul and Juanita Vasko, and the sights and sounds of rural eastern Pasco County are unmistakable: dirt road, crowing roosters, parked tractor, a fledgling blueberry patch, plenty of outdoor clutter and gun fire.

Lots of gun fire.

Everything except for the blasting firearms belongs to the Vaskos. The gunshots come from the abutting property owner, the Dade City Rod and Gun Club. It's not a new phenomenon. The club dates back to 1956. The Vaskos bought their land 21 years later, and coexistence hadn't been troublesome in the past.

"For the 20-something years, we never had a problem,'' said Paul Vasko, 71, a former Marine who is mostly retired. He still has an auto body shop on his 2.75 acres, which has a State Road 52 address, but uses Hobbs Road for access.

In years past, said Paul Vasko, when neighbors complained about noise, a gun club officer came over with a decibel meter, understood their concerns and ordered a sound-muffling carpeted baffle to curb the racket. Once, they even invited Vasko to come over and shoot his own pistol at the range.

But the go-along-to-get-along neighborly attitude eroded after a 2011 renovation at the range. The baffle came down, and an enlarged berm ended up too far to the east, crossing onto the Vaskos' property by 18 feet.

Last week, the Vaskos gave a reporter a tour of the rear portion of their lot, and, in just a few moments of searching, the couple pulled a half-dozen slugs and bullet fragments from the ground's surface. Three days later, with a Times photographer present, Vasko found what he believed to be a much newer slug that didn't show signs of exposure to the elements.

The Vaskos are not in a direct line of fire. Gun club customers shoot at targets to the north, not at the berm to the east that separates the properties. But ricochets are apparent.

And, bullets aren't the only thing flying. There are lawsuits, counterclaims, a state environmental consent order, a police report and complaints to Pasco County in a brouhaha that has brought bad feelings, outlandish assertions, big legal bills and no resolution.

In court filings, the club is accused of being a polluting land grabber while the Vaskos are portrayed as unreasonable people acting in bad faith.

The club's attorney, Larry Hersch, declined additional comment, saying the court pleadings speak for themselves. Among the competing allegations:

• The Vaskos are seeking an injunction to shut down the club's range that is nearest to their land, saying the encroaching berm amounts to trespassing and results in projectiles landing on their property. Separately, they contend it was built illegally, fails to meet county setback requirements and didn't have proper building permits.

• The Vaskos say a Department of Environmental Protection-ordered cleanup of their land wasn't done properly as indicated by the prevalent bullet fragments. The club said the Vaskos cut off access to their property, so a separate, state-financed remedy couldn't be undertaken "because of their recalcitrance and malice.''

• The club, in a 2015 lawsuit, contends Paul Vasko surreptitiously used a ladder to climb the berm and retrieve fragment-filled dirt from its property to drop on his own in order to bolster his environmental case.

"I guess I polluted the neighbors' land, too,'' Vasko scoffed. "I'm not that energetic.''

• The club said the Vaskos hurt the club's ability to do business by storing smelly, decaying animal carcasses, manure and fish meal in drums adjacent to the firing range to foul the air. Paul Vasko said it's a compost to produce natural fertilizer for his plants and that the club never complained about its smell until the baffle came down.

• • •

The Dade City Rod and Gun Club sits on the north side of SR 52, just west of Dade City. Paul Vasko said it was a skeet shooting facility when he and Juanita bought their land 40 years ago. There were no berms, just two concrete towers and the pursuit of clay pigeons, they said, and firearm shooting was relegated to the west side of the club's 12 acres, away from the Vaskos and other property owners on Hobbs Road.

"The kids could go back here and play. It used to be so quiet,'' said Juanita Vasko, a retired high school secretary.

In the early 1990s, the club expanded and then did so again in 2011. The Vaskos believe construction of the range abutting their property was illegal, and they took their contention to the county. Court records show Pasco County officials reviewed the allegations and ruled the gun range "is a lawful non-conforming use'' and said the structures are in compliance with county codes.

The encroaching berm is now at the center of that fight. The Vaskos asked the club to pay rent for the use of their land, but it declined. Later, mediation failed to resolve the matter. The Vaskos said the club made three offers for the land, the highest of which was $40,000, less than what the couple said they have spent on legal fees.

"We're not selling,'' said Juanita Vasko.

Five years ago, the Vaskos complained to the state DEP. On March 5, 2012, a state inspector came to the property to collect soil samples. And while the Vaskos were out back, Paul Vasko said he saw something hit the dirt in front of him and felt something strike his lower back. He reported to the Pasco Sheriff's Office that he believed he had been hit by a ricocheting bullet.

Neither Juanita Vasko nor the deputy said there were visible signs of an injury. But the deputy reported that she observed "what appeared to be spent ammo pieces in the ground. There were vast amounts of these pieces of metal scattered around on the property line, up past the berm, and well into Mr. Vasko's property.''

• • •

Testing by the DEP confirmed lead contamination in the soil, and a consent order required the club to clean up the Vaskos' property. It was supposed to dig out the dirty soil. That job, however, hit significant roadblocks over access to the site. The Vaskos didn't want the heavy equipment coming in from the south side of their lot and said the club should build a temporary dirt road to connect the sites at the western boundary.

"The lead came across the western boundary and it must be removed via the western boundary, even if it would require additional expense on the part of (the club) to improve the ingress and egress,'' states a July 2014 letter from the Vaskos' attorney to the club's lawyer. (Both sides are now represented by different lawyers.) The club declined.

In an interview, the Vaskos elaborated on their reasoning — the contractor hired to do the cleanup knocked down pine trees on the southern part of their property.

"That agitated the hell out of me," said Paul Vasko. "My youngest daughter planted those 30 years ago when she was a teenager.''

Court records show the club's representative applied for the necessary county tree removal permits trees before the cleanup commenced. The club's suit also said Paul Vasko authorized the use of the southern boundary route during a March 2014 planning meeting, a month before the work actually began and nearly two months before he started raising objections. And, by blocking access to their land, the Vaskos violated the court order requiring the cleanup, said the club's suit.

At one point, the DEP closed its file, saying the cleanup was finished. It reconsidered at the Vaskos' request and said the state could assist with paying for the mitigation, according to court records. Still, a resolution hasn't been reached.

"Why should my tax dollars pay for that?'' asked Juanita Vasko.

So, the court fight continues. In a new filing last week, the club asked a judge to toss the Vaskos' complaint, saying their unreasonableness in allowing access thwarted the very cleanup they filed suit to obtain.

"They clearly have come into this court with unclean hands,'' the motion states. "As such, they are not entitled to relief.''

Paul Vasko offers a contrary point of view, illustrated by the slugs he found last week.

"All the work they've done over there didn't stop the bullets from coming,'' Vasko said. "They're still coming.''

     
 
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