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Central Pasco neighbors take aim at proposed shooting range near Pasco Trails and Pilot Country Estates

To hear the developer tell it, the outdoor gun range he's proposing will be quieter than the cattle now mooing at the Watson ranch.

"A cow moos about 82 decibels," said Skip Drish, a former Illinois police officer who owns a security training center in Lutz. He said decibel meters measure the sound from bullets being fired at about half that level, with noise controls he plans to include. "That's quieter than a plane."

Tell that to the residents of Pasco Trails and Pilot Country Estates, which sit just more than 1,000 feet on each side of the proposed shooting range.

The idea of gunfire so close to a community that houses an airport and homes with hangars as well as an equestrian-themed neighborhood with horses has both homeowners associations plotting strategies to shoot it down.

"There is no middle ground," said John Grandoff, a Tampa attorney representing Pasco Trails resident Jim Smith and some of his neighbors. "He wants this stopped."

Residents of Pilot Country have submitted a petition with 90 signatures opposing the gun range, which would sit on 13 of 134 acres of ranch land owned by the Watson Family Trust. A company owned by Drish recently closed on 80 acres of the property.

"I've gotten about 23 letters of objections so far," said county planner Denise Hernandez.

Pilot Country residents list a host of concerns, including excessive gun noise that might traumatize some ex-military residents, ammunition that might pose a safety hazard to aircraft, passengers and people on the ground, lower property values and a lesser quality of life. Residents also have accused the developer of trying to sneak the proposal past them by putting the gun range 1,020 feet from both communities. County rules require notification for properties that lie within 1,000 feet of a project.

"We found out about it by accident," said Sue Richards, secretary of the Pilot Country homeowners association.

County staff has not created a recommendation on the proposal, which seeks a special permit to build and operate the range. The county planning commission is set to make a recommendation on the proposal at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 12. The County Commission, which has the final say, is set to hear the matter at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 9. Both hearings are scheduled to take place at the historic courthouse in Dade City.

Regulatory agencies have stayed out of the fray and declined to comment. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office didn't take a position but noted the presence of residential housing on both sides, as well as the airport.

"There will be a potential noise issue with both residential communities," Maj. Jeff Harrington wrote in a memo to the county planning staff. He said the proposed hours of operation, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, "may be considered too early or late for some."

Bob Jackson, a National Rifle Association member who evaluated the site but did not represent the group, said the project appears to comply with standards for lead management. He said the only concern residents might have is noise. He said state law protects pre-existing gun ranges from noise complaints by residents, but not ranges opened after the homes were built.

"It may or may not be an issue," he wrote to the county. "It's just hard to predict ahead of time."

Barbara Walker of West Pasco Audubon has asked for information about the area, which residents reported to her might include bird species such as the scrub jay, sandhill crane and osprey. She promised the group would "look at any environmental issues that might exist."

The burden of proof will be on Drish, who must show that the proposed range meets the standards spelled out in the county's land use rules. Those include being consistent with the county's overall land use plan, not adversely affecting the quality of life, the character of the area or land use patterns, not causing traffic or parking congestion, providing enough screening and buffering to prevent any problems for neighboring properties, and not compromising health and safety and welfare.

"Mr. Drish can't meet those standards," Grandoff said, adding that the law sets the bar high.

"You can't almost meet them, or meet some of them," he said.

Drish said the site's proximity to the airport makes it one of the best for a gun range. He said planes, which register at 68 decibels, already create noise. He said many gun ranges are located near them. An Internet search shows several being built close to airports, including one near the Orlando Sanford International Airport. The large acreage also allows a range to be built far enough away from homes, he said.

"I've spent 27 years in law enforcement," Drish said. "I don't want to disturb those I was sworn to protect."

Drish says he can meet or even exceed the county's criteria. He said the range would have 24-foot berms and a shed with a long enough overhang that would prevent bullets from being fired at planes. He said lead would be monitored semi-annually by a third party.

"Some (gun ranges) don't have theirs done but once a year," he said. "It's really a non-issue."

He envisions the area as training center for law enforcement officials as well as the public and a job creator for the area.

"I live in Pasco County," said Drish, a resident of Ivy Lake Estates in Odessa. He said he has called the neighborhood homeowners associations numerous times to invite them to a meeting but no one has responded.

"I want to be as transparent as possible," he said. "But they don't want to talk to me."

He said "there's a lot of misinformation" when it comes to guns and his project.

"You're not going to have someone shooting at a plane," he said. As for not notifying neighbors, he said he knew the county would do so, since an airport was located nearby. County staff did notify the neighborhoods, Hernandez said.

County Commissioner Ted Schrader, who met with residents, said he has "some real concerns" about an outdoor range so close to homes. He said the Dade City Rod and Gun Club, an open range that was built before zoning laws were enacted, has generated complaints over the years from neighbors.

"The proposal for an open gun range this close to existing homes as well as an airfield may not be the best location for such a facility," he said, adding that an indoor range might be acceptable. However, county planners say that would require Drish to jump through even more regulatory hoops, as indoor ranges are allowed only in certain commercial zones. The proposed site is zoned agricultural residential.

Neighbors of Pilot Country and Pasco Trails who met jointly last month to discuss their game plan were outraged.

"Everyone's stunned that it's gotten to this level," said Smith, who noted that he's not anti-gun. "I'm a card carrying member of the NRA," he said.

. Fast facts

Meeting on the proposed range

The Pasco County Planning Commission will discuss the proposal at a meeting at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 12. The County Commission will have the final say at a meeting set to begin at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 9. Both meetings are at the Pasco County historic courthouse, 37918 Meridian Ave. in Dade City.

Central Pasco neighbors take aim at proposed shooting range near Pasco Trails and Pilot Country Estates 08/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 25, 2012 1:55pm]
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