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Hernando County Commission upholds sale of guns from Spring Hill home

BROOKSVILLE — Trapped between a group of determined residents and a state law that their lawyer warned tied their hands, the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday reluctantly approved a controversial permit allowing the sale of guns from a Spring Hill home.

Paul Hargis sought a special exception use permit to sell guns from his home on Hague Court, a permit the Planning and Zoning Commission had approved in mid December. Residents concerned about the safety and residential nature of their neighborhood urged county commissioners to hear the case, and they agreed.

County Attorney Garth Coller strongly cautioned commissioners about their decision, explaining that state law preempted local governments from establishing any limits on gun use or sales. A provision levies fines of up to $5,000 against public officials who violate the law.

"Never have I seen a more crystal clear preemption in my life,'' Coller told commissioners. "It's crystal clear (state lawmakers) don't want any fingers in this subject.''

Residents, who had gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions, urged the commission to turn down the permit. Some spoke directly about their fear of firearms sales in their neighborhood, which are limited to one customer per day.

"This is unheard of. What's going to happen next?'' said neighbor Rita Milone.

She said the thought of someone buying a gun in her neighborhood "is just very frightening.''

Others urged the commission to consider just the land use question: whether retail sales should be allowed in a residential community.

"In my mind, this is not a firearms issue; this is a zoning issue,'' said resident Steve Bale. "When I bought a home here in Hernando County, it was a residential neighborhood.''

Attorney Bruce Snow, representing Hargis, explained to the commission that any restrictions placed on his client due to "the nature of the product" would run afoul of the state law.

He pointed out that the same kinds of rules would have to apply to any home business, not just this one because it involves guns.

Commissioners struggled with the decision and even took several short breaks to allow individual commissioners to confer with Coller. They considered delaying action in case the state law, which is being legally challenged, changes or making the permit temporary so Hargis could find a commercial location if the business takes off.

Coller explained to commissioners that an application is considered based on the laws in place at the time of the application.

Commissioner Dave Russell expressed frustration that the state had taken away the county's ability to make decisions in such a case.

"I don't like this law,'' he said. "I don't like it one damn bit.''

He said he didn't believe the county had any choice in the matter, and he was unhappy that this would allow one person running his business out of his home to have an unfair advantage over other businesses in commercial areas.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he was upset that there was no good way to enforce the restrictions placed on the permit, including one that limits Hargis to one customer visiting his home each day.

"This is set up for failure. This stinks,'' Dukes said. "I don't know what option we have except as a county to join the lawsuit'' challenging the state law.

The commission voted 4-1 to uphold the Planning and Zoning Commission decision to grant the permit. Commissioner Jim Adkins was the sole no vote.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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