Tense debate over Westminster Rod & Gun Club future

WESTMINSTER — Whether the Rod & Gun Club must comply with a cease-and-desist letter sent by the town’s building commissioner remains an open question following a periodically contentious Zoning Board of Appeals hearing Thursday night.

The hearing at Westminster Elementary School was supposed to end in a vote by the board on whether to grant the Rod & Gun Club its appeal. But testimony from residents on both sides of the issue stretched into the evening, and the board opted to reconvene May 2.

At issue is whether the club substantially expanded its scope of operations since 1974, when the town adopted zoning laws that effectively barred the creation of new gun clubs and shooting ranges.

The 124-year-old Rod & Gun Club was “grandfathered” in, said Building Commissioner Paul Blanchard, meaning it was permitted to remain open as a pre-existing, nonconforming land use so long as activity at the club didn’t increase beyond pre-1974 levels.

In testimony, Blanchard said the Rod & Gun Club violated its permit when it removed a substantial amount of land from its premises.

“One of the previous inspectors had written them a letter with regards to earth removal and the possibility that that would be an extension,” he said. “They either extended the shooting range that was there or created a new shooting range, you can’t really tell.”

The hearing started with testimony from the Rod & Gun Club’s attorney, Justin H.

Raphaelson, who argued the club is a pillar of the community that has not expanded more than state zoning case law would suggest is permitted.

“The shooting has not varied much, it’s always been happening for 100 years in the same manner,” said Raphaelson. “This club has been a focal point in the community. It has served a communal purpose for the town of Westminster for over 100 years. If the members are unable to continue using it for said purpose they lose a very important element of what makes Westminster Westminster.”

In testimony from neighbors and abutters, gun club opponents said they are fearful to walk on their property because of the possibility of stray bullets as shooters use powerful semi-automatic firearms. Proponents said the club’s shooting range is well-contained and doubted the possibility of stray bullets erring so far.

“I know it’s tough whenever you’re talking about guns in this political climate,” said Joyce Shank, who says she’s found bullets on her abutting property on Minott Road. “But it’s not about the gun issue, I just want to feel safe in my backyard.”

Mary Waight of Maynard Road said the rear of the property she owns with her husband Bill abuts the Rod & Gun Club, which in her view has expanded beyond 1974 levels. She said she often hears loud gunshots in rapid succession, which has impacted her quality of life.

“Over the 30 years that we have lived here we have experienced significant changes in the activity of the club, creating a negative impact on our ability to live…

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