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Gun club may have cleared land illegally

Published Oct. 10, 2005

In January, days after the state bought 1,500 acres of environmentally sensitive land, a private Hernando County gun club cleared a 300 foot road across the land so its members could get to their shooting range.

The Hernando Sportsman's Club was given access to the Chassahowitzka Swamp land and permission to make road improvements by the regional director of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Lt. Col. J. O. Brown.

Now, the club's road work and Brown's role in those activities are being reviewed by Allan Egbert, the game commission's second in command.

Egbert will travel from Tallahassee to Hernando today to examine the site.

In the meantime, he said, the club has been told to stay off the state's property.

"If they've gone and taken what amounts to an old track in the woods and made it passable for a variety of street vehicles, they've gone beyond what they should have," Egbert said Wednesday.

"The last thing in the world that would be appropriate is to go in there and do a substantial clearing.

"And if we've gone beyond what should have been permitted to do, frankly, that's a problem."

Club president Randie Rickert and vice president Maurice Black did not return telephone calls from the Times.

The Sportsman's Club, which used to be called the Hernando County Rifle and Pistol Club, bought its land in northwest Hernando several years ago. In 1988, the county approved a zoning change that allowed the club to use the property, west of U.S. 19, as a rifle range on the condition the club pave a road to the site and provide a 25-space parking lot.

But when the club tried to get road-building approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER), that agency determined that the proposed road would cut through wetlands.

"We felt that forested swamp was pretty critical to protect," said the DER's area environmental manager Ken Huntington.

DER officials told the gun club it would have to build a bridge across the swamp, which would have been more costly to construct than a road, Huntington said.

Instead, the club began to negotiate with ophthalmologist James Gills to use his land, south of the club's property, as an access route, Huntington said.

"The negotiations broke off," Huntington said. "It sounded like the Hatfields and the McCoys."

In August, representatives of the various permitting agencies met with about a dozen club members and state Rep. Chuck Smith, D-Brooksville, in an unsuccessful effort to resolve the stalemate, Huntington said.

"We are still waiting for the gun club to get back with us on the direction they intend to take," Huntington said.

But the club didn't continue its negotiations.

In January, the state spent nearly $7.5-million for 1,527 acres of Gills' Chassahowitzka land, including the acreage adjacent to the gun club property.

The purchase was part of a state effort called Preservation 2000 to keep Florida's environmentally sensitive land safe from development.

Brown said Tuesday that he learned of the state acquisition from gun club officials, who asked him if they could use a 40-year-old dirt road through the just-purchased land to get to their firing range.

Brown checked with his supervisors, who approved the access.

But the dirt road, known as the Old Rattlesnake Camp Road, was eroded and pocked with holes.

It was also about 300 feet south of the club's property.

So Brown gave the club permission to use a path from the Old Rattlesnake Camp Road to the property.

"I told them to go ahead and fill the holes in both roads and to remove 10 or 12 or 15 small saplings that had grown up in the old road," Brown said.

The club followed his instructions, Brown said.

But Hernando residents familiar with the forested property say the club cut a swath at least 25 feet wide and 300 feet long from the Old Rattlesnake Camp Road to club property.

"You had to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get through there," said Tom Varn, who until last month had a hunting camp on Old Rattlesnake Camp Road. "It was big enough for one car, but you had to be a good driver to get through there."

T. J. Storch, who owns property north of the gun club land, said he saw the road work Tuesday.

"That's a new road. That's a totally new road," Storch said. "They've just scraped the pines out and made it pretty wide. There was never a road there that I can recall."

Egbert, the game commission official, said he began hearing reports that heavy equipment was being operated on the state land about a week ago.

"I made some phone calls and got assurances" that the state land wasn't being cleared, Egbert said. Then, Egbert learned that the club had posted signs on state property, warning off trespassers.

"I gave instructions that the signs needed to come down," he said.

Tuesday, he learned of the Times' inquiry. He also received photographs from an agency employee of the just-cleared land.

"I saw a photo . . . and it looks like it's more than just a little clearing" of saplings, he said Wednesday.

"But I don't want to make a judgment based on a photo. So I'm going to go look" at the land.

Egbert said any destruction of state property would be of serious concern, but he would not specify what the penalties might be.

"This is land that is held in trust for the state. . . . We (at the Game Commission) would only be the managers of the property," he said.

"Any sort of easement or access this group may get has to be agreed to by the Division of State Lands. Clearly, any improvement to the property, likewise, has to be approved of. And this was not done."