Miller, Taylor try to aid gun clubs

Assembly leaders push bill for an exemption from state noise law

March 07, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

All Gary Crossley wanted to do was to enjoy the quiet life of his Queen Anne's County home without the nonstop staccato of gunfire.

His struggle for peace and quiet is pitting him against two of the most powerful politicians in Maryland.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have introduced legislation that would exempt gun clubs from Maryland's noise regulations -- a measure that would essentially leave Crossley powerless to curb the sound of guns from a nearby hunting lodge.

"They have a lot of political pull," says Crossley, 46, who has filed years of noise complaints against J & P Hunting Lodge of Sudlersville. "I'm not sure there's much I can do."

The General Assembly's presiding officers say they're seeking the exemption from 18-year-old sound regulations to protect gun clubs and shooting ranges from encroaching development.

"The purpose of the bill is to keep the gun clubs in existence," Taylor says. "In some places, they are being threatened by these regulations."

Miller describes the proposal as an effort to protect "legitimate sportsmen." He acknowledges that the legislation -- supported by the National Rifle Association -- is an effort to appease gun-rights advocates still upset over the landmark gun safety law approved by the Assembly last year.

"When we take something away, we have to give in return," Miller says.

But a lawyer who argued this week before the Court of Special Appeals on behalf of Carroll County residents fighting a club's noise says the proposal would leave homeowners powerless. "It would have an absolutely terrible impact on the public at large, while helping a very small group of people who like to shoot guns," says Michael Darrow, the attorney.

The contention over sound regulations at the state's gun clubs and shooting ranges dates to 1983, when the Assembly approved noise control regulations. The law exempted clubs that were in existence, but new ones were subject to regulations requiring that noise not exceed certain levels.

Since then, the Assembly already has acted once to protect gun clubs from neighbors unhappy with noise. It passed a law in 1997 saying the clubs could not be the target of lawsuits alleging that their noise is a nuisance. Darrow's nuisance lawsuit against the Carroll club beat the law by one day.

Last year, because of concerns from gun clubs in Queen Anne's, legislators considered a bill to prohibit the state Department of the Environment from enforcing sound limits on ranges there.

That proposal never went anywhere, but Miller stepped in last summer to support the J & P lodge. He wrote a three-page letter to Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida raising questions about enforcement of the regulations.

"I believe that your Department's overzealous pursuit of this matter may deprive the state and region of a lawful and beneficial land-use, community partner, and a corporate citizen," Miller wrote in the July 17 letter.

Though the lodge's shooting range didn't open until 1988, Miller's letter pointed to conflicting regulations suggesting that the 1983 sound restrictions shouldn't apply.

Nishida responded by saying that the issue of gun club noise -- as well as other noise pollution issues -- warrant further study, prompting her to refer the matter to two department committees. Those groups are expected to have recommendations this spring or summer, a spokesman said.

Residents who live near some Queen Anne's clubs say enforcement has slackened since Miller's intervention.

"Pintail Point had put up some acoustical treatment around their shooting stands and redirected the gunfire, and that gave us some relief," says Clifford McMillin, president of a homeowners' group near the Pintail Point resort in Queenstown. "Then, there was a relaxing of the measurement and they built three new stands closer to the water without the acoustical treatment, and it got very loud again.

"They can control the noise, and they've elected not to do that," McMillin says. "Now, they want a law so they don't have to control the noise at all."

The general manager of Pintail Point did not return a phone call yesterday. But John George, president of J & P -- the other major Queen Anne's gun club that would be most directly affected by this year's legislation -- says he has taken steps to try to control noise.

"We've done quite a few things, and nothing seems to satisfy," George says.

Greg Costa, Maryland liaison for the NRA, says gun clubs don't want to upset neighbors, but such conflicts seem inevitable as development extends further into rural areas. "We like to see the ranges kept open so that gun owners can pursue their sport in a safe and secure environment," Costa says. "It's important we protect the ranges we have."

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