Board shoots down new firearms rules

Ordinance sent back to drawing board

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Another attempt to refine gun rules misfired on Monday, as dozens of hunters testified that the ordinance would restrict use of their own land and be inconsistent with state regulations.

The Williston Selectboard on Monday held a public hearing on an amended firearms discharge ordinance. After more than an hour of testimony, the board sent the proposal back to the drawing board.

“It appears to me at least that we need to do more work on the ordinance,” said Chairman Terry Macaig.

It was at least the third hearing on the issue, which has created considerable controversy over the past few months, with property owners arguing for more restrictions and hunting advocates lobbying for reduced regulation.

The current ordinance divides the town in two parts, north and south of Interstate 89. Firearms cannot be used in most of the area north of the interstate, but they can be used south of I-89, except for in public parks and recreation areas or within 500 feet of any building.

Town staffers suggested amending the ordinance to clarify what is a public park. Hunting advocates then urged the town to allow hunting on at least some of that land. But when that was proposed, others came forward and urged the town to ban firearm use on all town-owned property.

That provision was included in the latest version of the proposed ordinance. Other restrictions included a ban on firearm use within 10 feet of any public road or within 100 feet of any marked public trail.

Monday’s hearing was attended by about 40 people, almost all of whom were hunters or members of sportsmen’s groups.

Some of the most pointed testimony came from large landowners who also like to hunt.

Jeff Boomhower said he owns 190 acres south of I-89. He noted that his family granted an easement to the town for a trail that reaches Five Tree Hill.

Instead of a thanks, he said the ban on firearm use within 100 feet of a public trail would prevent hunting on his property.

“You are regulating private land,” Boomhower said. “This is a slap in the face.”

He later accused the board of being “out of control,” drawing applause from the crowd.

Others pointed out that the proposed rules departed from state regulations, leading to potential confusion.

Evan Hughes, central vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said the ordinance would forbid firearm use within 500 feet of any building, even if the land is not posted, which is required by Vermont law to establish a no-hunting zone.

“Sportsmen are a law-abiding group,” Hughes said. “They need consistent laws.”

Several who spoke said at least some of Williston’s public land should be open to hunting. That would ensure that young people and those of modest means have an accessible and affordable way to participate in a centuries-old Vermont tradition.

“Lots of young people, who if land wasn’t close by, wouldn’t have the opportunity to go out and hunt,” said Greg Paulman, a local hunting instructor. “To make them drive an hour to get someplace they can hunt with the cost of gas what it is really isn’t fair.”

Notably absent from the hearing was anyone supporting the amended ordinance. At a September hearing, residents who live in the rural Brownell Mountain area said they were worried about their safety.

“I have 10 acres and I like to walk it. I don’t want to have to worry that my head might get blown off by a stray bullet or a ricochet,” Julie Bonanno told the board.

Some at Monday’s hearing, however, felt that hunters and hikers could co-exist.

“Public land is public land, and there is room for everybody,” said Williston resident Ladd O’Brien.

After the hearing ended, Macaig indicated there would be no vote on the proposal and the crowd streamed out the room. The board then informally talked about prospects for changing the ordinance before concluding there was no rush.

“Since the hunting season is over except for muzzle loaders, there’s not a lot of urgency,” Macaig said.

Any substantive change to the current proposal would require yet another public hearing, said Town Manager Rick McGuire.

A final comment by board member Jeff Fehrs crystallized why a seemingly modest ordinance change created such a divisive debate.

“I’m always going to put residents’ safety over hunters’ rights,” Fehrs said. “I’ll sit through more ugly public hearings if I have to to protect public safety.”