Jefferson County gun range action leads to lawsuit, hearing

Fort Discovery Inc. files brief in state Court of Appeals

Joe D’Amico

Joe D’Amico

PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County’s efforts to control gun ranges has spawned new legal action, a report of critical areas violations and a Growth Management Hearings Board petition.

Fort Discovery Inc. filed a brief in the state Court of Appeals in May that questions the validity of Jefferson County’s Commercial Shooting Facilities ordinance and the Washington State Constitution in light of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

“We think the state constitution needs a much higher standard of review and to be more protective of a citizen’s right to bear arms,” said Greg Overstreet, general counsel for the corporation.

Filed on May 6, the 50-page brief is currently under review and Jefferson County has until Thursday to file a response. Fort Discovery then has 30 days to file a reply.

Overstreet said oral arguments are scheduled to be heard in the fall and a decision would be made in about a year.

The case involves the validity of the county ordinance’s restriction on operations at gun ranges, especially limiting the time law enforcement and military can train.

Joe D’Amico, owner of Fort Discovery Inc. and developer of the proposed Cedar Hills Recreational Facility at Tarboo Ridge, claims the days/hours restrictions were added without an opportunity for public comment when the Jefferson Board of County Commissioners approved the ordinance in November.

“This is much bigger than our proposed range,” D’Amico said in prepared remarks. “This affects everyone’s right in Washington to shoot at gun ranges.

“We are especially concerned about the discrimination against law enforcement and the military. I can’t understand why Jefferson County doesn’t want them to be able to be trained as well as possible in firearms.”

Overstreet said the case can make new law on the state constitution’s version of the Second Amendment, and it is about protection to shoot at a gun range to maintain proficiency in firearms, “a right that has recently been recognized by federal courts.”

Article I, Section 24 of the Washington State Constitution says “[t]he right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself, or the state, shall not be impaired, but nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain or employ an armed body of men.”

State courts have held that the right to bear arms is not absolute and is subject to “reasonable regulation” by the state under its police power.

Overstreet said the courts imply that the standard is reasonableness and that during the past two years the federal courts have beefed up the language that state rulings have to reflect the federal rulings.

“Federal rulings are important because states can’t be less protective of gun rights,” he said. “We think coming up to that federal standard is required.”

Inspection

But Fort Discovery Inc. itself has not been up to standards when developing its Cedar Hills Recreation Facility on two 20-acre parcels on Tarboo Ridge, according to county and state officials.

Last year, the county approved ordinances that regulate the development and operation of commercial shooting facilities throughout the county.

Fort Discovery intends to build and operate a commercial shooting facility in the near future at the site that’s in a zone designated as Inholding Forest 20 (IF 20).

IF 20 allows for a commercial shooting facility as a conditional use, so the county has said that Fort Discovery must apply for a conditional use permit and provide a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Checklist for the original scope of the project.

Jefferson County’s Department of Community Development (DCD) and the state Department of Ecology completed a site inspection of the Cedar Hills property March 22.

In a letter to D’Amico and Fort Discovery, DCD Director Patty Charnas said several violations were found, including critical area ordinance violations that affected wetlands and wetland buffers. She said that land disturbing and development activities occurred on the site without a stormwater permit, that three structures were not permitted and that an unpermitted septic holding tank was installed.

As of Friday, Fort Discovery had not responded to the DCD’s request for a plan to acquire the necessary permits as described in the letter. The deadline was May 20.

Tarboo Ridge Coalition

“They think Title 8 is a constitutional gun rights issue,” Peter Newland of the Tarboo Ridge Coalition (TRC) said referring to Fort Discovery.

“We never said we are opposed to guns and don’t think Title 8 abridges the right to own a gun,” he said. “We are focused on other issues of Fort Discovery’s behavior, such as proceeding without permits.”

Newland said the key is what is the county going to do about the violations.

“Are they using enforcement action? Can they cite him?” Newland asked. “This act of defiance is typical of his [D’Amico’s] historic behavior.

“For 14 years he breaks the rules and disrupts the community and they [the county] can’t get a handle on how to rein him in. Considering the things he does, it’s clear he is no friend of Jefferson County government.”

TRC is questioning the county by challenging the validity of the passing of the Title 8 Ordinance as a health and safety ordinance.

At 9 a.m. June 11 in the county commissioners chambers, the Growth Management Hearings Board will hear arguments between TRC and the county to determine if the government is in compliance.

TRC believes Title 8 is a violation of the Growth Management Act. Previously the code allowed “gun ranges” as a “small-scale recreational and tourist use limited to one gun range per parcel.”

Title 8 creates “commercial shooting facilities” each of which may contain multiple gun ranges within the facility, and which may also offer unit training to police and military.

TRC also has said that the ordinance amends the land use code, creates a new permitting scheme, lacks SEPA review, and is an incompatible use within commercial forests,

“The public had no input on this. The staff shaped it,” Newland said.

“The interest in this issue has been translated far beyond the Tarboo Valley. About 76 percent of county is eligible for a shooting facility. Think of Brinnon and the Coyle and Port Ludlow.”

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Jefferson County Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected].

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