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More in Letters
The Howes speak out
To the Editor:
We, John and Debbie Howe. are beginning the seventh year of our battle to regain the right to quiet air space at our beautiful farm on McIntire Road. This comprehensive public letter will present all the facts and our story in response to numerous media coverage and the recent letter to the Advertiser Democrat by the Gun Club president, John Conti.
Before 2007, we lived in Waterford for 31 years, pursuing our work of light manufacturing, outdoor activities, part-time farming, raising a family and building an art studio.
Suddenly, beginning in 2007, the ambient quiet we always enjoyed was destroyed at any time: mornings, evenings, all day long by new, incessant, loud gunfire from the nearby Waterford Fish & Game (WFAG) Club property on the side of Route 118 about one mile away from our home.
Prior to this time, gun noise was never an issue. We only remember the WFAG facility as the end of an old building. Something had dramatically changed, especially frequently repeated, double-shot shooting, rapid-fire shootings and the arrival of police departments from Oxford County and the neighboring towns to train with pistols, rifles and automatics.
We could no longer enjoy our own property, including our inside work areas and home with doors and windows closed. Since then, on weekends and holidays, we have to physically leave our home. The noise has been emotionally debilitating and a major disruption to our lives in our retirement years. The noise barrage is different from sporadic, rural gun fire from random sources.
In 2007, we quietly approached the head selectman about the problem. We also visited the area to complain. We were told, with a few heated expletives on both sides, that the site was grandfathered, private property and we should leave immediately with no consideration whatsoever regarding the noise invasion of our property. From that time on, the noise increased and the situation continued to worsen and become more intolerable.
In 2008, we and other Waterford residents circulated a petition of complaint. Sixteen signatures, most from the opposite side of Route 118, were presented to the Waterford Selectmen. No action ensued and the noise continued to escalate in frequency.
In 2009, we joined with a group of other concerned neighbors and formed the Waterford Noise Abatement Coalition (WNAC). A lawyer representing the WNAC sent a letter to the head selectman requesting that the noise component of the Town Site Plan Ordinance be enforced.
There was no written response from the town. In the fall of 2009, there were a number of very contentious presentations, with our opposition in attendance, at regular selectmen public meetings. By this time, the argument evolved from the WFAG officials that "nothing had changed," "there was no escalation" and therefore the town administration had no reason to intercede.
It also became clear at those meetings that the WFAG was not paying property taxes and had no security or fences, unlike three other more remote and larger, nearby shooting ranges.
In December, 2009, then Head Selectman John Bell sent a formal letter to the WFAG president, John Conti, requesting facts pertaining to club escalation. The response from the WFAG Club lawyer was that the 4.9-acre site had not increased in size, therefore there was "no enlargement."
Also during 2009, the WFAG president did meet privately with two residents on Chadbourne Road (Mary Delorenzo, the secretary of the Planning Board, and Barbara Vanderzanden) and offered minor concessions in response to their complaints.
By April 2010, we, the Howes, had no alternative but to sue the WFAG for nuisance, emotional distress and diminution of property value. This was the beginning of an 18-month ordeal we never could have imagined.
We hired two expert witnesses, filed depositions and interrogatories, and in September 2010, with our two lawyers, participated in an attempt at mediation which cost us over $3,000 in one day!
By this time we realized we were fighting WFAG's three lawyers, their insurance company and a "Three-Year Range Protection law" (which was quietly passed in nearly every state) all supported in the background by the NRA, which wasn't about to compromise over a little gun noise dispute in rural Maine. Documents of proof are available.
In 2011, we abandoned this suit because of the Range Protection Statute. We had also spent over $35,000 (from a home equity loan) and were making no progress towards regaining our lives. Needless to say, the emotional and financial drain has been debilitating. By now, just the "anticipation-anxiety" of possible gunfire at any time was wearing on us. We could not plan our lives because shooters could come and go at will.
But little by little, through our own investigation and the legal process of discovery in our law suit, we found out what really happened. The whole matter started in 2005, when the City of Auburn ordered the Auburn Skeet Club (ASC) to shut down their site on Riverside Road because of public safety and nuisance.
The ASC had purchased competition clay projectile machines, which make skeet shooting a repetitive competition event. These two machines, one on each side of the shooter and costing thousands, are housed in little innocuous buildings.
Certain individuals made a deal with the nearly dormant WFAG to bring their skeet machines to Waterford, as well as some proceeds from the sale of the nonprofit ASC site: including clearing, landscaping, a regulation skeet field, water, septic, new pistol ranges, two additional rifle stands and a new clubhouse.
The Waterford Site Plan Review, public reviews or hearings and planning board approval were quietly circumvented because the two little buildings were too small (with no concern about what's inside). In early 2006, the then code enforcement officer, Albert Holden, unilaterally signed off, on the same day as the application, a second permit, this time for the new clubhouse again with no public (and town) knowledge, or Site Plan Review.
The reasoning behind this significant property change was that "the old clubhouse was being replaced."
After the code enforcement officer's permitting of the skeet buildings and clubhouse, two additional rifle firing lines, two new pistol ranges and a 40-foot container building were also added with no permits at all. In total, invoices show the WFAG spent over $63,000 for changes between 2006 and 2009, while the membership also doubled.
Despite these facts, the WFAG still claims "nothing changed," and the Waterford selectmen have supported this position right to this day. We cannot understand why our town government continues to side with an outside private entity (about 20% of WFAG members are Waterford residents) instead of defending the property values and rights of taxpayers.
In October 2011, we presented this entire story at a regular (not a public hearing) planning board meeting. We have never received a written response.
In 2010 and 2011, we applied for property tax abatements based on the statistical methodology by our expert appraisal witness. After the selectmen refused these, we presented our story in an appeal to the Oxford County Board of Assessment Review (OXBAR).
On June 20, 2012, in an unprecedented, unanimous vote, the appeal was granted in our favor. "Under great duress" the selectmen sent us a check for the two years' appeals. For the year 2012, we have also applied for a tax abatement. We have again been denied by our selectmen and are forced to repeat our appeal to OXBAR.
Based on the OXBAR ruling, any taxpayer within a 1.5 mile radius of the WFAG site can apply for a 2012 tax abatement. To some, because of lifestyle or proximity to Route 118, gun noise may not be an issue. But, if other taxpayers wish to weigh-in on the problem, the abatement request must be submitted by March 31.
From the very beginning, we have always offered to look for community-building resolution. We have offered time and time again to help fund sound enclosures that work, as proposed by our gun range and sound expert witness (report available). Proper enclosures would ensure safety and reduce noise to the vulnerable public outside the range at the public highway, turn-out and cemetery, which are less than 50 feet from the rifle stands.
The sandlot ball field is 300 feet away. The 2012 late fall "roof extension" for sound "attenuation" did not work. It's even noisier at the highway. It would be easy to finish the roof job by dropping sound-absorbent walls to the grade on three sides of the rifle stands. (Does the WFAG really need eight firing lines?)
A similar sound enclosure could be built at the two bermed pistol ranges. This would functionally reconstruct the original indoor range that was torn down in 2008, to make room for the two additional rifle stands.
Unless something is done before we have to endure another (our seventh) year of noise, our legal counsel tells us we have an excellent case against the town government for improper permitting (Ultra Vires - meaning outside the law), hence the "threatened law suit."
We are ready to meet at any time with our lawyer and the town lawyer in attendance (and, perhaps, the new WFAG president) to attempt to peacefully resolve this dispute once and for all. We will never give up our quest to regain our right to peacefully enjoy our beloved farm and neighborhood.
John and Debbie Howe