PARKERSBURG - Wood County commissioners on Monday issued a 30-day cease-and-desist order for the Sundowner Gun Range.
After Monday's meeting with Wood County Sheriff's Department officials, Prosecutor Jason Wharton and residents and business owners who live near the Gihon Road gun range, commissioners voted unanimously to issue the order.
According to the order, the decision was based on "testimony of the Wood County Sheriff's Department and numerous residents of that area that the Sundowner Gun Range posed a hazard to public health and safety."
Steve Mahaffey, right, president of the Wildwood Residents’ Association, outlines the history of complaints dating back to 2012 that homeowners and business owners located near the Sundowner Gun Range have filed. Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton and Shawn Graham, chief law enforcement officer with the sheriff’s department, also attended the commission meeting Monday to hear property owners’ complaints. (Photo by Pamela Brust)
The commissioners also directed the prosecutor to submit proposed regulations relating to gun ranges located in the county before the 30-day period expires. The commission has authority under state code to implement provisions when it is determined there is a need to eliminate "hazards to public health and safety."
County officials said the gun range owner and his attorney were informed of the Monday meeting but did not attend. The gun range owner could not be reached for comment by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel on Monday afternoon.
The commissioners were earlier provided with a file full of reports dating back to 2012 alleging neighborhood property owners found bullets in their homes and businesses, on the property and the streets of nearby residences they contend were fired from the gun range.
Shawn Graham, chief law enforcement officer with the sheriff's department, said officers used a laser to measure the distance between the firing range area and the nearest occupied residence after receiving reports the nearest residence was within the 500-foot restriction zone of the firing range.
"We were told by the mapping department the distance was less than the required 500 feet, but it was actually more than 500 feet, but less than 600 feet," Graham said.
Steve Mahaffey, president of the Wildwood Homeowner's Association, asked commissioners to take action with regard to the range, which residents feel is a safety hazard. He reiterated numerous complaints and prior meetings with the commission asking for action on their part.
"On Sept. 27, 2012, Prosecutor Jason Wharton advised commissioners by letter that W.Va. Code 7-1-3kk gives them 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," according to Mahaffey.
Property owners contended shooters at the range are not being properly supervised, and said they have photos of individuals at the gun range firing weapons from outside the protected "Blue Sky" shelter area.
"We are concerned about not only our children but our own health and safety when we are outside at a time when they shoot at the Sundowner Gun Range," Mahaffey said. "I believe it is time that we realize this is not an acceptable location for a gun range where the firearms being used have the potential for injury or death and damage to the surrounding community."
"Sunday afternoon I went outside to fix lunch and as I opened up the door a bullet hit the grill. If it had been just a little lower it would have hit the propane tank. I'm not going to take a bullet for the stupid reason they want to shoot at a target," said resident Jim Jonas.
"It's not a very good idea having the range in that location, it's not a violation, but it doesn't seem like a good idea. The bigger issue here is safety," Graham said. "We can't say definitely the bullets being found are coming from that gun range, but I believe they do. I can say we didn't get complaints of bullets in homes and on property until that gun range opened."
Sheriff Ken Merritt told homeowners, "It's hard to prove anything. This a problem all over West Virginia; probably the entire U.S."
"We tried to close it down in the summer of 2012, but we were told it was not a violation of state code, and the sheriff's department wouldn't close it down," Commissioner Steve Gainer said.
"Under this state code section you (the county commission) does have the ability to close it down if you deem it a safety hazard," Wharton told commissioners.
Dunn said officials need to meet with the gun range owner's attorney to see if there are other ways it can be made safe, "in order to be fair. He seems, in the past, like he's been willing to try and do additional things to make it safer," commission President Wayne Dunn said of the range owner Kendall Richards.
Wood County Floodplain Coordinator Ed Hupp said the property is in the floodplain and there are buildings in the floodway.
"No application has been filed. They have to show it won't affect floodwaters," Hupp said. "It applies to any development in the floodway. It requires an engineer's study," Hupp said.
Commissioner Blair Couch said rather than "spot zone," he would prefer the commission consider working with the prosecutor to set up a set of criteria for gun ranges, "all gun ranges," he said, noting there are a number of ranges in the county.
"We can have public hearings and allow comments once we have the proposed regulations," Couch said.
"Rules and regulations are a great idea, but I'm worried about my grandchildren who live in the area and I am concerned for their safety," resident Emily Bradley told commissioners.
"I don't want to close him down, but high-powered rifles are a problem. He needs to decide what he wants to do," Dunn said of the owner. "We have to consider everyone's rights. We just want everyone to come out of this with something they can live with. Safety is a concern, but he's (Richards) been willing to make changes and he has the right to respond. I think we all agree it's not a good location, but he has rights."
"We are going to get sued over this," Couch noted.
"If it means my child's safety and their lives, let him sue," said resident Nick Bradley.
During past meetings, Richards has contended there is nothing unsafe about his gun range.
By code the county can create 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."