WILLISTON, Vt. — For the second time this year, the Williston Selectboard had on its agenda an ordinance that would have substantially limited operations for the North Country Sportsman’s Club. And for the second time this year, the board voted to table the proposal.
Not quite as many orange vests filled up the room as in February, but enough hunters showed up to make their presence felt. And many wondered why the board was going over this well-trod ground again, especially since the parties are awaiting a Supreme Court decision on a suit the club filed against the town in mid-2015 over noise-ordinance citations.
“There’s a lot of folks out there wonder why this is coming now when almost certainly there is going to be a Vermont Supreme Court decision within the next month,” said Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “It’s causing a lot of questions about why this is going on tonight.”
Town Manager Richard McGuire addressed that concern at the start of the meeting.
“If the board makes a decision on this tonight, then you may not have to make a change after that [Supreme Court] decision is made,” he said. “Of course, there’s no certainty on that. the Supreme Court decision could change the nature of what the rules are. If the amendments are not adopted, then we are guaranteed going to have to make a change.”
Hughes saw no reason to act before they had to.
“I would suggest that the board wait and see what the Supreme Court comes down with and not lend itself into a lot of speculation as to why you are doing this at this late hour,” Hughes said.
Bob Otty, president of the North Country Sportsmen’s Club board, also spoke, telling the Selectboard that if the town wishes to continue to have constructive dialogue with the club on how to resolve the matter, it would be in everyone’s best interest to wait on the court.
“We’ve been around and around on this and I think there are additional comments that could be made but they may be a moot point depending on what the board’s inclination is for this evening,” he said.
The outcome could have implications for towns and ranges across the state, Hughes said, because lying at the heart of the dispute is the Vermont Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights.
“To regulate or prohibit the use or discharge, but not possession of, firearms within the municipality or specified portions thereof, provided that an ordinance adopted under this subdivision shall be consistent with section 2295 of this title and shall not prohibit, reduce, or limit discharge at any existing sport shooting range, as that term is defined in 10 V.S.A. § 5227,” reads the relevant statute, 24 V.S.A. § 2291. “Nor shall this ordinance apply to the discharge of firearms on any existing sport shooting range, as defined in 10 V.S.A., section 5227.”
While the Selectboard’s decision to table the proposal came after about 10 minutes of discussion, there was still some impassioned statements in defense of the value of the range to the community. John Vibber, club member and former board member, tried to persuade board members that they should look at the club as an asset, not a liability.
“Given what we see elsewhere, should we take our culture for granted?” he said. “If you lose it, you won’t get it back. Hopefully we can maintain this culture if our next generation of gun owners continues to get their gun safety and proficiency instructions from parents and relatives as well as from 4-H and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts alike, but they will not be safe shooters from those lessons alone. Maintaining safety and proficiency comes from continued practice.”
Michael Bielawski is a reporter for Vermont Watchdog.org. You can contact him at [email protected]