Gibsontown community fiercely opposes firing range
CANTON — A Canton Board of Aldermen meeting erupted into heated discussion at times during the public comment session Thursday.
The meeting drew about 20 residents of the Gibsontown community who fiercely oppose the proposal to build a new police department firing range at the old landfill off Dutch Cove Road.
Wanda Conley Walker, a resident of the community near the proposed gun range site, kicked off the discussion on behalf of the group.
"Our presence here clearly states that we're probably not in favor of this, and we want to know, we just kind of heard this, so we want to know the details. We want to know what's going on and why we are targeted there in our community for this when there are other options," Walker said.
For the past 30 years, the department has used a firing range that was built on property owned by the mill. However, Evergreen Packaging recently announced plans to build a new landfill cell where the firing range was located, forcing the department to relocate.
The firing range would be beneficial for police officer training and annual certification required by the state. Town staff has been eyeing the old landfill property because of its location and because it is town owned property.
Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss addressed Conley's comments that the community had not been aware of the proposed gun range.
"I'm sorry that that's the perception. That was not the intention to throw this in an undesirable neighborhood. This was simply just looking at available town property that we own, which is the entire landfill, and looking at an area that we feel is fairly remote and that we feel is safe. We have a lot more investigation to conduct," Hendler-Voss said.
He pointed out that putting the money aside in the budget is simply an earmark and does not mean the project will be implemented.
"Why does our neighborhood have to be referred to as an 'undesirable' neighborhood?" said one woman in the audience.
Kenny Davis, whose property on Dutch Cove Road touches the landfill property and was one of the most vocal against the firing range, spoke next.
"It affects me mostly because I'm right there on the landfill," Davis said. "I just want y'all to understand this affects me. No one ever sent out a notice or anything. I just happened to hear about this through the grapevine. What kind of respect is that for the people of Gibsontown? I mean, you want to go on disrespecting us like that?"
Davis was also against the possibility of the proposed firing range being closed to the public.
"You're talking about people that's been there 100 years, and you guys want to come and just put a shooting range and then you don't want people to have access using their own guns? It's just for your friends and your people. What's up with that?" Davis said.
"I want to apologize for any harm I caused in my words," Hendler-Voss said.
Davis interrupted saying, "Well you watch your words then, because we're here and we're watching your words."
"Let me say again to you, sir, I apologize for any interpretation of me disrespecting your neighborhood. That was not my intention," Hendler-Voss said.
He pointed out that the board had discussed allowing limited public use at the proposed range and that it was never the board's intention to move forward with plans without the community's consent.
"At that budget work session, we discussed that we would have a public input process, so at no point, I'm just assuring you, at no point in the process was a decision made to build a range there without any public input," Hendler-Voss said.
A veteran with PTSD said he is also strongly against a firing range being near his home. He fears a firing range would scare away the abundant wildlife that lives in the community.
"This ain't the 1960s anymore, and y'all just go over there and do what you want to do. The public didn't find out about this until Sunday, I mean, when was y'all going to spread the word? I don't think that's fair. You can't take it to a white neighborhood; they ain't going to put up with it," he said.
Hendler-Voss assured the audience that there was no ill-intent when it came to the location choice.
"I know this might be hard to hear, but I am being completely truthful with you; nothing other than land availability factored into this proposal. I'm sorry that it has been interpreted otherwise. I would love the opportunity to earn your trust and to meet with you and visit your community and talk about this further," Hendler-Voss said.
Another audience member asked what would happen to the budgeted money if the public opposition remained. Hendler-Voss said if another site could not be found for the firing range, the money would be returned to the fund balance.
"It's easier sometimes to have the money in there in the beginning than to go back in the middle of the year and change the budget," he said.
The permitting process to build a range would take six months to get approved, Hendler-Voss said. In the meantime, the town plans to utilize other firing ranges in the county.
"We are looking at a long-term solution for our officers to qualify and train, so ideally in the future we would have our own range," Hendler-Voss said.
Someone in the audience suggested the town look into an existing firing range at the old slaughterhouse.
"Apparently we have other options to explore and that's what we intend to do," Hendler-Voss said.
Alderman Carole Edwards pointed out the board did not want to implement plans without public consent.
"It was discussed that before we moved forward with anything on this that we would come to the community and speak to you all about how you felt about it. I just want you to know that was said in our budget session," said Alderman Carole Edwards.
Walker thanked the board for listening to their concerns.
"Our primary concern is the safety, the noise, the traffic patterns that are already there and we do appreciate this time that you have allowed us. Please consider our concerns because that's our community and it's not as remote as some may think. These people live within a few steps of where this place is," she said.
An old issue
During a budget work session earlier this month, Mayor Mike Ray questioned the need to build the firing range at a cost of $10,000 when the police officers could possibly use other firing ranges in the county at a cost of about $250.
Town staff worked out a plan to propose allocating $3,500 in this budget to go toward engineering and permitting expenses. Then, money would be requested for the next fiscal year to fund a second phase of the project, which would be a total of about $6,500 instead of $10,000.
During the meeting last week, the mayor made a point to go back over the minutes from the work session and note that he had asked Police Chief Bryan Whitner if any of the residents near the landfill had been notified of the proposed firing range. He noted that Whitner's response had been that no one lived close to the area except a town employee.
Later in the meeting, the board unanimously adopted the budget, which included allocating $3,500 for the firing range project.
Hendler-Voss said the town will continue to explore options when it comes to where the firing range could be built.
"We are going to explore every option that is going to have the least amount of impact on our taxpayers," he said.
He added that no decision will be made to build anything until it is discussed with the public.