Olympic hopeful Dania Vizzi aims to keep shooting at disputed gun range

The Vizzi family sues Pasco County to maintain skeet shooting range over neighbors’ objections.
The family of Dania Vizzi of Odessa, is suing Pasco County over a disputed skeet-shooting range in Darby. Vizzi, above, is an Olympic hopeful and won a bronze medal at the 2019 Pan-American Games.
Times The family of Dania Vizzi of Odessa, is suing Pasco County over a disputed skeet-shooting range in Darby. Vizzi, above, is an Olympic hopeful and won a bronze medal at the 2019 Pan-American Games. [ TIMES | (2017) ]
Published Jan. 21, 2020|Updated Jan. 21, 2020

The family of champion skeet shooter and Olympic hopeful Dania Vizzi is taking aim at a new target — Pasco County.

Vizzi’s father, Arthur J. Vizzi, is suing Pasco County over his daughter’s use of a rural, 53-acre site in Darby for target practice. The suit contends that state law preempts the county’s authority to regulate the shooting range if it is not operating as a commercial business.

The lawsuit comes after the family had sought a county conditional-use permit for the range. They withdrew their request in November less than two hours before a scheduled public hearing on the application. The family and county could not agree on operating conditions to be attached to the permit, including hours of daily use and installation of a noise-reducing berm the Vizzis said was cost-prohibitive.

Related: Dania Vizzi family drops shot at Pasco gun range

That permit application is expected to be part of the county’s response to the lawsuit.

"The county’s position is that a conditional use is required, and the Vizzis’ application for one is evidence the county’s position is correct, despite their last-minute withdrawal of the application,'' senior assistant County Attorney Kristi Sims said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The county has not filed a formal answer to Vizzi’s Dec. 16 lawsuit.

Vizzi’s attorneys, Matt Newton and Jonathan Joseph Ellis of the Shumaker, Loop and Kentrick law firm in Tampa, said the family’s permit application was an effort to reach a compromise with the county since the two sides disagreed whether the county had authority to regulate the family’s use of the property.

Under state law, the county cannot control firearm use on agricultural land, but it can regulate gun ranges. The county has said the Vizzis turned their farm land west of Bellamy Brothers Boulevard into a private skeet shooting range by erecting structures on the property without county approval. The family uses the structures, known as trap houses, for storage and to launch clay pigeons for target practice.

Newton said the Vizzis provided a letter to the county reserving the right to pursue the court case if they couldn’t come to an agreement on the permit conditions. The county, the lawyers said, did not attempt to resolve the dispute in good faith.

“The county put in barriers that would prevent them from using it as a shooting range,’’ said Ellis. “They gave them a resolution they knew the Vizzis were not going to be able to do.’’

Related: Young skeet champion traded ballet shoes for shotgun

Dania Vizzi, 24, of Odessa in Hillsborough County, is a member of the U.S. National Shotgun Team, a two-time national champion, world champion, Olympic hopeful and bronze medalist at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.

She has said she trained six days a week by firing a 12-gauge shotgun at clay pigeons in two-shot increments from 25 locations.

Vizzi’s parents purchased three parcels totaling 53 acres in the rural enclave of Darby in 2018 for $549,000 and installed the trap houses. The county cited them Nov. 1, 2018, for developing the site without permission, but the Vizzis were allowed to continue using the range since they had applied for the appropriate permit.

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Related: Dania Vizzi's shooting range is Olympic-sized pain to neighbors

Neighbors objected to the shooting range during an October public hearing before the Pasco Planning Commission, contending the noise disrupted their quality of life and the flying ammunition posed a safety threat. Among the evidence presented was a social media video showing Dania Vizzi firing an AR-15 rifle on the property.

“I don’t think AR-15 shooting is part of the Olympic games,’’ Planning Commission member Jamie Girardi said then.

He and the rest of the Planning Commission approved the permit application, but only if the Vizzi family followed a list of conditions, including conducting a wildlife survey, installing a noise berm and limiting the number of people on the property. Instead, the family dropped the application request before a scheduled final hearing with the elected county commissioners.

By withdrawing the application for the conditional-use permit, but continuing to use the range, the family again was considered in violation of county codes. The county sent a cease-and-desist letter in November, saying the structures had to be removed by Dec. 15. The Vizzi lawsuit came the day after that deadline.

Sims briefed county commissioners Nov. 19 on the potential for litigation.

"We need to move forward with stopping that,'' said Commissioner Ron Oakley. "We need to protect our citizens out there.''

The cases is assigned to Pasco County Court Judge Kent Compton. No hearings have been scheduled.