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Spotsy takes aim at shooting ordinance

BY JEFF BRANSCOME

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

The Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors is divided on a proposal that would allow residents to take target practice in some subdivisions.

Board members may vote at their meeting Tuesday on whether to legalize the firing of guns in subdivisions on lots of more than 5 acres. It’s currently illegal to shoot in any subdivision regardless of lot size.

Two supervisors say they’re undecided, so it’s unclear if the proposed ordinance has enough votes to pass. Some residents have said they’re concerned about safety and noise.

Supervisor Timothy McLaughlin said he supports the proposal and thinks it will be approved. It doesn’t matter how big a lot is if somebody mishandles a weapon, said McLaughlin, who stressed that state law makes it illegal to recklessly handle firearms.

“We’re getting hung up on the lot size, and that’s really probably one of the last things that will be enforced on a negligent discharge” of a firearm charge, he said.

The county currently allows hunting on parcels of land zoned agricultural with at least 5 acres, as required by state law.

Most subdivisions in the county—such as Leavells Crossing and Holleybrooke—do not have housing lots as large as 5 acres, according to a draft report from the county.

Spotsylvania has 60 subdivisions where all lots are greater than 5 acres and another 87 neighborhoods, including Bloomsbury Farm Estates and the Estates of Chancellorsville, where some lots are more than 5 acres.

Supervisor Gary Skinner said he thinks it would be “foolish” for the county to allow shooting on 5-acre lots in subdivisions. He wonders if the board is trying to fix something that’s not broken.

“We really didn’t do bad with what we had in the past,” he said.

COUNTY HAS OPTIONS

At a recent meeting, Skinner asked whether the county could require shooters in subdivisions to have backstops such as berms.

State law doesn’t allow localities to require shooting backstops, regulate the caliber of weapons used or restrict shooting within a set distance from homes, County Attorney Jacob Stroman wrote in a memo.

The county could amend its noise ordinance to include firearms, but that would require a public hearing, Stroman said. Any changes to the noise ordinance would not affect existing shooting ranges.

Stroman has said the shooting issue surfaced when his office learned that the current ordinance may be vulnerable in court because it doesn’t define a subdivision. The proposed ordinance says a subdivision is any housing development that has a plat on file with the Circuit Court.

Still, Commonwealth’s Attorney William Neely told supervisors that he has prosecuted people under the existing law.

“We’ve prosecuted it a number of times and, to be fair, a judge has never ruled that it’s not enforceable. It’s just Mr. Stroman and I identified a potential problem with it, so we brought it to the board’s attention,” he said.

Supervisor Benjamin Pitts said one solution would be to define “subdivision” and make no other changes to the ordinance. He said he has serious concerns with the proposal, and the majority of constituents he’s heard from oppose it.

“Many of them have told me [and I agree] that one of government’s basic responsibilities is to provide for the safety of its citizens,” Pitts said in an email. “They feel that this proposal is doing just the opposite.”

Eight of the 13 residents who spoke at a recent public hearing on the issue were against the proposed code changes as written.

Supervisor Paul Trampe said he hasn’t made up his mind on the proposal. But he said it would still be illegal to fire guns in every subdivision in his Salem District, even if supervisors allow shooting on lots of more than 5 acres.

“I don’t think that’s a bad provision, but I’m still open to just doing the minimum,” Trampe said. At a minimum, he said, the county needs to define the terms “subdivision” and “gun” in the ordinance.

ONGOING DISCUSSION

Board members have been discussing the issue for about a year. They originally voted to consider an ordinance that would allow residents of subdivisions to shoot on their property if they lived on lots of more than 1 acre.

A lot of residents had safety concerns with that proposal, so supervisors increased the proposed minimum lot size.

Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Pearce said police routinely receive calls about guns being fired in neighborhoods, but he didn’t know how many such complaints they had received in the past year. The Sheriff’s Office takes the incidents seriously, but he said he doesn’t think the county has a “huge problem” with people shooting in subdivisions.

Supervisor Ann Heidig said her only concern is for the county to have an enforceable ordinance. She said she’s not sure if she supports the 5-acre proposal.

“To me, picking an acre size is sort of difficult to do because as we know, it’s really not the size of your lot, it’s how carefully you manage your weapon,” Heidig said.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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