Both sides heard in request to open indoor gun range at former recreation center
By Steven Hoffman
A Sept. 16 public hearing asking London Grove Township to consider amending wording in its public zoning ordinance, that if passed would permit the opening of an indoor firearms shooting range in Avondale, was tabled by its supervisors until Sept. 24.
Representing his client, attorney Neil Land said that Remo Toto -- the owner of Remo Toto's Mushroom Services in Avondale -- has purchased the site of the now-closed former Boomers indoor recreation facility on Route 41, for the purpose of opening an indoor firearms shooting range, a sporting goods retail store and a small restaurant. In reviewing all township laws and regulations regarding a business of this kind, Land said that he saw some vagueness in the township's zoning codes' definition of what constituted “indoor recreational use,” and sought to get clarity from the township.
Land said that under the current definition as it currently exists, the township zoning officer said that an indoor gun range was permitted to be established in the CI – or commercial district – in the township.
In response, Lancaster attorney Jim Thomas represented three appeals filed by local residents, all of whom are expressing opposition to the establishment of an indoor firearms shooting range at the Boomers site. Thomas is representing Melanie Keller, owner of the Westtown Children's Academy; local landowner Nancy Truitt; and business partners Gerald Bowes and Tom Deigman, who currently own the driving ranges and miniature golf center located behind the Boomers facility.
The impetus to explore the potential of opening an indoor shooting range, Toto told the board of supervisors, came from his son Alex, who received as many as ten phone calls a day from gun owners looking for a suitable indoor location in the area.
After doing extensive research, Toto purchased the Boomers location, which closed its indoor recreation center in January.
"To me, this is hogwash," Toto said. "What I'm doing is going to hurt nobody's property value, whatsoever. We've got numerous support from the community, who are excited to see a shooting range go into this community."
Toto described his proposed facility as a "mini Cabela's" and that safety would be the top priority. Users of the facility would only be able to use ammunition provided and sold at the facility, and users would be required to follow strict safety guidelines.
"When people park in our parking lot, they will have to carry their gun in their case, and use our ammo," Toto said. "We want to eliminate the risk of anything happening."
To date, Toto has gotten letters of approval from several local townships and police forces, as well as from Chester County Sheriff Carolyn "Bunny" Welsh.
"I want us to be entertaining, where women and children can come in and be entertained," Toto said.
Matt Brinkerhoff, a consultant with Action Target, a nationally-known builder of indoor firing ranges, is currently working with Toto on developing preliminary plans for the Boomers location. He provided the supervisors with a detailed description and design concept for the location, and said that the design of the facility is about 40 percent complete.
As of right now, Toto has signed no contracts to do the work that he described. To that end, Thomas took exception to Brinkerhoff's testimony, which included the anticipated release of lead into the atmosphere, the anticipated decibels that would come from the indoor range, and other issues related to safety regulations as dictated by the National Rifle Association.
"We're talking about an application for which we have seen no plans, for which there are no standards, for which there are no contracts," he told the board. "We're just taking someone's word here, and that's the basic part of our objection. This is something that should be subjected to at least your conditional use hearing, or zoning board hearing, where these standards can be displayed."
The board then heard the testimony of Frazer-based land planner David Babbitt, who looked at the proposed request to establish an indoor firing range at the Boomers site. Babbitt said that an indoor shooting range would be better suited in a township's industrial district.
"An industrial district has all of the uses in a township that have unwanted aspects to them, including glare, smoke, noise. That's why they're in industrial districts," he said. "You have two such industrial districts in the township, and there is available land in each one."
Thomas asked Babbitt if a permit for a business of this kind should be granted as a use permitted by right, or require review by the board of supervisors, or zoning hearing board. Babbitt responded by recommending that permission to open the business be permitted either by special exception, or by conditional use.
"These two zoning mechanisms provide an extra level of control and safety, over which property may be used, which building may be used," he said. "Conditional use and special exceptions require a public hearing. Therefore, there is a notification process. The public gets to come out and learn about it, and gets to voice its concerns."
Without special exception or conditional use, Babbitt said that it would be possible for Toto to open the shooting range without the board, planning commission, zoning hearing board and the neighbors knowing about the range's opening.
Babbitt said that in addition, a township should also tack on further regulations to a business, require a list of standards for compliance, and should feel free to apply additional conditions to the granting of a conditional use, all in an effort to hold the applicant to his or her word.
Additional objections were heard from Truitt, Keller, Bowes and Deigman.
Truitt expressed concern that the indoor shooting range, if permitted, would be allowed to operate about 500 feet from the Westtown Children's Academy -- owned by Keller -- which is located on Moxley Road, at the site of the former courthouse.
Given that the range's parking lot would be near the State Police barracks in Avondale, Truitt said that it would create what she called a "perfect climate" for snipers to perch.
Keller told the board that the issue is one of perception.
"My concern is the impact that it's going to have on my business, should [the indoor firearms shooting range be permitted]," she said. "Some people are not comfortable with guns, and they don't want their kids in a school with guns right next to them. I have 30 kids right at that location, and I'm worried what would happen, should that gun range go in."
"If we have a say in how we can affect the future, I'd like to do my best to make sure [the establishment of an indoor shooting range] doesn't happen," Deigman told the board. In Land's cross-examination, Deigman said that he did not recall a discussion he had with Land, when he, according to Land, told Land that he had no objection to the establishment of an indoor shooting range.
Bowes told the board that he has no objections about an indoor firing range in the township, except one: It's in the wrong place.
"The problem is that people's perception changes your ability to get value out of what you have," Bowes said. "It belongs in another part of the township. It's not that I disqualify Mr. Toto or any of his family from being able to do this. It needs to be in a substantially different place, within the township, and I would be more than glad to cooperate any way that I could, because I do think it's a needed use."
As recommended by Chairman Richard Scott-Harper, the London Grove Board of Supervisors agreed to table any decision on the hearing, and agreed to hold a follow-up hearing on Sept. 24, beginning at 6 p.m., at the township building on Rose Hill Road in West Grove. A decision on the issue is expected to be reached at that time.