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Hernando County Commission rejects plans for outdoor gun range near Weeki Wachee

Published Dec. 9, 2015

BROOKSVILLE — Faced with a room of angry residents and recommendations of denial from both their staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission, Hernando County commissioners on Tuesday voted down a rezoning for an outdoor gun range and training center north of Weeki Wachee.

The perplexed applicant, Christopher Russo, told commissioners that the permitting process was unfair and that the county shouldn't have taken his application fee if it wasn't going to give him the specifics he needed to get the rezoning approved, especially when he planned a facility with even more safeguards than other local ranges.

His initial pitch to the commission was that, with all of the recent gun incidents around the nation, he wanted to provide proper training for gun owners.

That prompted one Woodland Waters resident to express concern that Russo was planning a "commando camp" on his 3.75-acre parcel west of U.S. 19, just north of Long Lake Avenue and south of Glen Lakes.

Residents of Glen Lakes and surrounding communities filed to the microphone to voice concerns about noise, stray bullets, pollution of groundwater and falling property values; Russo countered that he had a right to use his property to run a business and feed his family and that the fear of stray bullets "is fantasy land.''

Not to Gary Eckenroth.

With a copy of a police report in hand, Eckenroth spoke about a 9mm shell that pierced the wall of his Auction House business on Nov. 14, narrowly missing his teenage daughter. He called 911, and deputies came to take his statement. Another call that day regarding shots fired in the area was also placed, and a deputy spoke with Russo.

He told deputies and he and others were shooting handguns into a sand berm on the site, but he didn't think that they had shot the Auction House building. The deputy noted that the building was in the direct line of fire.

"Christopher further stated that he was very concerned and he knows that this is very serious,'' according to the deputy's report. "He advised that he would like to take care of the situation and take care of any damages to the building.''

When Eckenroth brought the incident up during Tuesday's public hearing, Russo strongly objected multiple times. Commission Chairman Nick Nicholson repeatedly had to tell him not to interrupt the hearing, and the commission ultimately overruled the objection and told Russo to explain his objection when he spoke again after the public comment period.

During that time, Russo said he had been advised not to say anything further about the incident due to potential litigation.

David Lopez, an attorney for both Glen Lakes property owners and for the community's developer, argued that the gun range rezoning should be denied based on multiple factors. Most important, he said, it was the applicant's responsibility to prove that the rezoning was consistent with the county's comprehensive plan, and yet Russo never spoke about that plan.

Beyond that, Lopez said, "this is a matter of safety and quality of life.''

Calling it an "intrusive land use,'' he described how the constant sound of gunfire, which "would become a part of their daily lives," was going to negatively affect home values, the ability to sell homes and the ability to sell the 650 lots still in the hands of the developer.

From the effect on pets and people with post-traumatic stress disorder to the impact of spent rounds on nearby springs, each speaker talked about their objections to the proposal.

Glen Lakes resident and former Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Robert Widmar appealed to commissioners, saying, "We hope you shoot down this application.''

Ultimately, the commission did just that with a 4-0 vote, based on a finding that the proposal was not consistent with the county's comprehensive plan.

Never discussed during the two-hour debate was the Florida law that reserves for the state the right to regulate firearms and ammunition.

If he chooses, Russo could appeal the commission's decision in Circuit Court, though he did not speak of any plans to do that on Tuesday.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.