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East County Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 5 years ago

Proposed gun club gets tentative green light

by: Josh Siegel Staff Writer

Lakewood Ranch — Wayne Evans, a master-level shooter, gave the order for a man to shoot four rounds with a .410 gauge shotgun, the smallest gauge of shotgun shell there is.

The shooter fired his ratgun, what Evans and other gun enthusiasts call it, from the grounds of the proposed Ancient Oak Gun Club, a 24-station sporting clays course in Lakewood Ranch.

Evans, standing less than 4,000 feet away to the northwest, at the Bayside Community Church soccer field, waited and heard nothing. Maybe the co-worker had misunderstood the command.

Evans called the shooter from his cell phone and told him to shoot. The shooter said he had, but he fired again for good measure. Still, not a sound.

The Jan. 11 test run — prompted by concerns from officials and parents at the Center for Montessori School and Bayside Community Church, who are worried about the proposed gun club’s proximity to their facilities — was meant to allay those worries.

It came after a county hearing officer indicated she would allow Schroeder-Manatee Ranch to carry on with building the club.

On Jan. 8, Manatee County Hearing Officer Lori Dorman issued a notice of intent to approve a special permit application for the proposed gun club, to be built on 78 acres zoned for agricultural use, three-quarters of a mile south of State Road 64 E., off Uihlein Road.

The order says parties of record, or those who spoke out against the club at a Dec. 19 public hearing, have five days, excluding Saturday and Sunday, to respond to the county.

On Jan. 16, those comments will be shared with Dorman for a final review. Dorman will then issue the final order by Jan. 24.In the notice of intent, Dorman says the proposed use of the gun club is compatible with the area and not a danger to public safety.

Evans, whom SMR brought on to run the project last June, owned a sporting clays shooting club in Lithia, in Hillsborough County, for two-and-half-years — a project that received no opposition, he said.

“There was actually an outcry of people grateful for it,” said Evans, who, as a child, shot rifles while hunting in Pennsylvania.

Now, circumstances are different.

Mara Fulk, administrator at the Center Montessori School, says the school’s outdoor nature lab, used by sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, two-to-three times a month for celebrations and events such as Earth Day, sits less than 4,000 feet from the proposed gun range.

“The county’s ruling is unfortunate and we’re concerned,” Fulk said. “When we were kids out playing in our yard, we didn’t think twice if we heard a loud noise like a gun shot. Now, with everything that’s gone on, hearing guns is a distress.”

After getting parent and student feedback, Fulk says the school will revisit how much time its students spend in the nature lab. She expected parents would submit concerns to the county during the five-day period after the Jan. 8 ruling.

Jamie Zinkhan, a Montessori parent and gun owner whose son is too young to use the nature lab, says the gun club means a loss of innocence for children. She doesn’t buy Evans’ test run, calling in “unscientific.”

“It’s really insensitive for SMR to consider building a gun club so close to a church and school,” Zinkhan said. “Exposure to guns — what they sound like, what they’re used for — should not be forced upon a child. Children have few places to escape. They had the nature lab. Now they don’t.”

Another Montessori parent, Shelley Wilbur, says even if children can’t hear the gun shots, as Evans attests, the mere thought of its existence brings shivers.

Wilbur’s seventh-grade daughter, who used the nature lab, spoke out at the special use permit hearing Dec. 19.

“She’s scared,” Wilbur said. “It’s psychological. Just knowing it’s there.”

Dave Neiman represented Bayside at the same public hearing, where he voiced concerns about the club’s proximity to the church’s soccer field, basketball court and playground.

He offered little after the county’s ruling.

“We stated our opposition and we’re accepting the ruling,” Neiman said.

Evans carefully plotted his plan for the gun club, which the Florida Fish and Wildlife approved. It also met all criteria established by the county.

He wanted the club to be as close to the Desoto Super Speedway on State Road 64 E., about five miles away, as possible. That way, businesses that seek quiet won’t build in an already noisy area.

“We painstakingly picked the property’s location,” Evans said.

Still, the low-brass, low-power ammunition ringing from the shotguns will be quieter than the county’s 60-decibel limit.

“We couldn’t even get decibel readings at the areas they worry about,” Evans said.

There will be no rifles or pistols allowed at the club, and employees will check the shells of new shooters before they shoot to make sure they meet criteria.

For others, safety officers will prowl the course to listen for higher-powered shells.

Evans says it’s enough. The club is on track to open in late February or early March, if the county allows it.

“I have to assume that if the tragedy in Connecticut didn’t happen, these knee-jerk concerns wouldn’t exist,” Evans said. “If people are opposed to it, it must only be because they’re anti-gun. I hope people show up (to the club).”

Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].

What is sporting clays?
One of the fasting growing shooting sports, it involves shooters who walk or ride in golf carts to different stations, where they try to hit clay pigeons using shotguns loaded with low-powered trap and skeet shells.

What will the Ancient Oak Gun Club offer?
It will offer lessons to beginner shooters, as well as annual memberships and daily fee shooting. Wayne Evans also hopes to host National Sporting Clays Association tournaments. The club will be open to anybody who reads and signs a set of safety rules, which are also posted on the course.

What guns are allowed on the course?
.410 gauge, 28 gauge, 26 gauge and 12 gauge. Shooters can bring their own gun, or rent one. The club will also sell shells.

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