Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

County should act to protect neighbors of hunting camp, gun range

It would be nice if we could just ignore Ron Ritter.

It would be nice if not paying attention to Ritter, who runs a hog-hunting camp in Ridge Manor, would do what that supposedly does to loudmouths — quiet him down. Even nicer if it stopped him from creating problems for neighbors of the property he leases off U.S. 98, south of State Road 50.

But it hasn't.

For the past year, the county has taken a mostly hands-off approach to Ritter.

Not that it hasn't addressed other issues on this property — and there are several. But, still, the county has allowed Ritter's camp to operate.

It's allowed it even though the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's denied his plan for a hunting preserve in 2012, and, last year, the Hernando County Commission rejected his request for a special exemption permit.

It's allowed it even though neighbors have complained about, among other annoyances, around-the-clock gunfire; armed, drunken patrons wandering near or over property lines, and stinking hog carcasses left to rot.

Ritter still advertises "boar-hog hunting, fishing, camping, (and) retreats" on his website, ilivewild.com.

The sound of gunfire from the property is still loud enough, said neighbor Tracy Brown, that when "you are dead asleep it will sit you straight up in your bed."

And Ritter still seems determined to continue to cause as much aggravation as possible.

Last week, he sent a news release announcing he will hold a grand opening Sept. 13 for a 24-hour gun range on the property, an event that will include shooting, fishing, camping, raffles and the giveaway of a shotgun to a deserving mother — for home protection, of course.

Besides spreading the word of his new business venture, Ritter said, the opening will serve as a fundraiser to make up for the revenue lost by the county's excessive interference with his operation.

Actually, county, please interfere more.

Yes, people should have the right to hunt on agricultural land, especially for pest animals such as feral pigs. They should not, however, be allowed to run unregulated, disruptive and potentially dangerous businesses.

Ritter has been able to get away with this for as long as he has partly because the state's absurd gun laws offer him a measure of protection, especially the one that holds elected officials personally liable — subject to paying fines out of their own pocket, in other words — if they try to make rules about guns that are stricter than the state's.

It's an intimidating law, and Ritter, a stocky, gun-loving former professional mixed martial arts fighter, can be a frightening person.

And maybe that's contributed to the county's generous interpretation of the 2013 agritourism law that Ritter likes to cite.

The idea was to allow farmers to make some money, to bring in visitors, to teach our increasingly urban population about how food is produced. The law attempts to create a "direct linkage between agritourism and actual agricultural production," said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Which I take to mean that if the farming operation is about breeding horses, which is the case with the Ridge Manor property, the recreation should be buggy rides or show jumping. It's hard to see how hunting applies, especially because there's not one word about it in the law — and even harder to see

But state law is clearer when it comes to gun ranges.

The county can definitely forbid new ones from opening, which is what should happen here.

The county needs to do what it can to keep the first paying customer from firing the first shot.

They need send a message to Ritter and other self-appointed champions of personal freedom that, as his neighbor Tracy Brown said, "just because your property is zoned agricultural doesn't mean you can do whatever you want to do."

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: Ron Pianta, Hernando County's assistant administrator of planning and development, relied on an assistant county attorney's opinion when he said that a hog-hunting camp should be allowed on agricultural land in Ridge Manor. Also, the county code enforcement office has not received any complaints about the property in the past year. These points were not clear in Dan DeWitt's Aug. 22 column.

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