Clovis gun range gets time to resolve noise issues

The Fresno BeeFebruary 25, 2013 

At the end of a seven-hour meeting that dragged into early Tuesday, the Clovis Planning Commission brokered a six-month truce between the owner of an indoor gun range and nearby residents unhappy over the noise reaching their quiet neighborhood.

Commissioners voted unanimously to give Jacob Belemjian, the owner of The Firing Line, 180 days to reduce gunfire noise.

The commission's decision at 12:40 a.m. ended an acrimonious fight between Belemjian and his neighbors and quelled talks of potential lawsuits by neighbors or Belemjian against the city.

"This is the Clovis way of life," said Chairman Vong Mouanoutoua, who noted that Belemjian, his supporters and the neighbors all agreed to work with city staff to find a solution.

The recommendation now goes to the City Council, which has the final say over whether to modify Belemjian's conditional use permit, revoke it or let him continue to operate while he tries to fix the noise problem. The City Council will take up the issue on March 18.

Hours after the vote, city officials said a key point coming from the marathon hearing was Belemjian's admission that he could have done a better job of lessening the gunfire noise.

Much of the noise is coming through two large, metal roll-up doors, Belemjian told the commission. He said his first task will be to seal one door and better sound-proof the other.

Belemjian also agreed to accept help from Fred Armijo, a carpenter who owns a home near the firing range. Armijo told the commission that when the gun range opened a year ago, he offered to help Belemjian, but his offer was ignored.

"He's not being a good neighbor," Armijo told commissioners.

But once the commission proposed working together, Armijo said he would gladly help Belemjian. "We all want him to succeed," Armijo said. "We just don't like the noise."

The feel-good ending didn't start that way.

On Monday night, an overflow crowd of more than 100 people packed City Hall to debate the merits of a gun range operating next to homes.

The special hearing was supposed to be the first step in determining whether Belemjian's operating permit should be revoked or modified for disturbing the peace.

A majority of the gathering wore bright green T-shirts that read "Support The Firing Range." But when Lori Weaver-Hill, who owns a home near the gun range, asked them if they lived near the gun range, only one or two of them raised their hands.

"Gunshots are gunshots," she told the gathering. "Respect our neighborhood."

Belemjian was annoyed by the process. He said it wasn't his fault his neighbors purchased their homes next to an industrial area. He also said he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making a safe range with respectable noise levels.

He said he felt like "Jake the trick dog who has jumped through every hoop the city has put in front of him."

The Clovis City Council approved Belemjian's operating permit in November 2011 on a 4-1 vote over the objections of neighbors who signed a petition. Council Member Lynn Ashbeck cast the lone "no" vote.

But once it opened last March, the gun range at 1173 Dayton Ave. has been at the center of a fight over property rights.

Open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, The Firing Line was built inside a metal building that originally housed a cabinet shop. The business has about 1,000 members who pay monthly or yearly dues to shoot, Belemjian said.

Because the gun range is in a light industrial park, Belemjian's permit allows him to operate as long as decibel levels don't exceed an average of 65 decibels over a 24-hour period. A staff report said he was within the 65-decibel requirement.

But city staffers wanted him to reduce the level to 55 decibels at any given time. Belemjian said the lower decibel level is unfair. His neighbors also said the 55-decibel limit wasn't suitable to ensure peace and quiet.

"I'm not going to stand here and get barbecued," Belemjian told the commission. "We all made mistakes, but you get to tell me to clean up the mess."

Fire officials monitored the crowd that spilled out of every exit of the City Hall chambers. Police were on hand in case trouble broke out.

Large speakers were set up so commissioners could hear the sound of gunfire that sound expert Jeff Hall had recorded. The recording is what neighbors hear, he said.

Supporters of the gun range fought back.

"I sleep in complete silence," said Shirley Stine, who lives nears the gun range. "I can't hear The Firing Line."

Richard Buck, who doesn't live near the firing range, told the commission no neighborhood is free of noise. He said he lives near a high school where the marching band practices regularly.

"It's annoying, but I don't complain, because I know people like football and marching bands," he said. Buck asked Belemjian's neighbors to learn to live with the noise.

But neighbors said the constant gunfire has devalued homes, cost residents sleep and kept scared children from going outside.

Dwight Kroll, the city's planning director, said the industrial area where the gun range lies has been around since at least the 1970s. The zoning allows shooting ranges.

In 1983, a City Council dealing with Clovis' growing suburban appeal approved a general plan amendment that allowed a housing tract next to the industrial area. The homes were built between 1985 and 1987, the staff report says.

Because the industrial area was approved long before the residential tract, the staff report says, "all residents were on notice that their neighborhood adjoined an industrial area."

But the report also says: "Prior to the approval of The Firing Line, there were few complaints from neighbors about the industrial uses. Those concerns were resolved without the need for any formal action."

Hours after the commission voted, Kroll said the city could have done a better job of putting stricter safeguards in Belemjian's permit to protect the neighborhood.

"This was our first experience with a gun range," Kroll said Tuesday afternoon. "We didn't have the background to foresee what was going to happen."

In the end, however, Kroll said he felt good about the commission's decision.

"I think we all came away feeling that we're all in this together," Kroll said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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