PARKERSBURG - Wood County commissioners agreed to have the sheriff's department turn over reports filed against the Sundowner Gun Range on Gihon Road and have distances between the range and area homes and businesses re-measured after complaints again were filed by property owners contending bullets from the range have been found on their property.
"Let me be perfectly clear that the Wildwood Residents Association has no agenda or intention to impose or infringe on anyone's Second Amendment rights," said Steve Mahaffey, president of the Wildwood Homeowner's Association. "We are concerned about safety and from the firing line of the rifle range to the first house setting in Wildwood, it is approximately 2,000 feet. A .22 long rifle bullet travels at 1,255 feet per second and can travel, unimpeded, 4,590 feet.
"That's just under a mile. The .223 caliber travels about two miles unimpeded. These are both popular caliber guns most likely used at the gun range, among others," Mahaffey said. "It is the belief of the homeowners the earthen backstop at the gun range is not of an adequate height to contain bullets fired from the rifle range," Mahaffey said. "Within Wildwood proper, I personally know of three separate properties that have been damaged by bullets allegedly fired from the rifle range."
J.R. Flinn, left, and Wood County Commission President Wayne Dunn look at the bullets brought in by a local business owner. Neighbors and businesses in the area around the Gihon Road gun range say bullets from the range have been fired around employees, neighbors and into houses and buildings. (Photo by Pamela Brust)
Mahaffey said there have been 35 reported incidents related to the private members-only gun range filed with the sheriff's department.
Neighbors, both residential and business, repeatedly have complained about finding what they say are bullets from the range on the streets, in homes and businesses. Last year, county officials, gun range owners and attorneys toured the range.
No one representing the gun range attended Monday's meeting. Contacted Monday afternoon by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel, range owner Kendall Richards said neither he nor his attorney were aware of Monday's meeting.
Commission President Wayne Dunn told those attending Monday's meeting a letter had been sent to Richards' attorney, Charleston lawyer James Tinney.
Dunn also said he called Tinney and left a message. Dunn said neither the letter nor the call were answered.
"If my attorney had been contacted about the meeting, we would have been there. No one contacted me either. We have been here for years, there is nothing unsafe about the range. There are only a few people who have complained. No one has ever been injured and no property has ever been hit by bullets from my range. It's impossible, we have a Blue Sky System installed that stops bullets in the air. We had it installed on the rifle range, so there is no way to shoot up in the air," Richards said.
Mahaffey said the recommended height for the backstop is 20 feet high.
"We feel the height of the backstop now being used is inadequate," he said.
Paul Sheff, with W.H. Smith, showed commissioners 10 bullets he said were found on his property during the past year and fired from the gun range.
"We found fired bullets close to the office and buildings. One of our employees was nearly hit with a bullet. We have repeatedly called the sheriff's department, about 14 different times. They are different calibers, I am worried about my employees' safety. Our buildings are on a parallel line with the range," Sheff said.
"We'll do everything we can, but I don't understand why the homeowners association doesn't hire a lawyer to go to court. Apparently our hands are tied, we'd like to see it resolved also for the safety aspect, it seems like something the courts could do," Commissioner Steve Gainer said.
The homeowners representatives said it is a question of money.
Those attending told commissioners they have a responsibility to ensure public safety.
Commissioner Blair Couch said the commission voted earlier to shut the business down, but were informed by the prosecutor they did not have the authority to do so.
The county can create an ordinance, Couch said. According to a section of the state code submitted earlier by Prosecutor Jason Wharton, the commissioners have authority to enact ordinances "for the elimination of hazards to public health and safety and to abate anything which the commission determines to be public nuisance." The ordinance may provide for a misdemeanor penalty. It "may be applicable to the county in its entirety or any portion of the county as considered appropriate by the county commission."
"But if we created such an ordinance, I assume that gun range would be grandfathered in," Gainer said.
"At a minimum, we can ask the sheriff to review the gun range and report back," Couch said.
"I don't want to close the gun range, but something needs to be done to make sure it's safe. I called Mr. Tinney this morning but I have not heard back from him, we will pursue this," Dunn said.
"I wouldn't want to live up there, I agree with you 100 percent. But in my opinion, the way to go seems to be to go to the court system. We are on your side. But our prosecutor has told us we can't do anything about it," Gainer told the property owners.
"Apparently the sheriff's department has been called about these stray bullets and has done nothing and the prosecutor told us we didn't have the power to shut the business down," Couch said. "We will ask the sheriff for copies of the reports filed and have the sheriff's department report back to us."
Residents said the West Virginia Department of Natural Resource regulations require 500 feet between the range and homes, churches, other dwellings and parks. They contend it's closer, but county officials said the distance was measured earlier and was reported as more than 500 feet.
"We have to talk to Mr. Tinney. Mr. Richards has said he put a lot of money into the range, but apparently he did nothing to the backstop. We can't talk to him, we have to talk to him through his attorney, so we need to get a statement from him, it would be better if he'd just address it," Dunn said.