Firearm ordinance back on the agenda

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard will revisit the controversy over hunting on publicly owned land next week.

The board’s Oct. 15 session will include a discussion of the firearm ordinance, which prohibits firing rifles, pistols and revolvers in most of the area north of Interstate 89. The ordinance also forbids the use of those guns – even in rural areas south of I-89 – within 500 feet of any building, road or trail, or in any public park or recreation area.

That last provision prompted hunters to ask for changes, said Carrie Deegan, the town’s environmental planner. Greg Paulman, a Williston hunting safety instructor, proposed allowing some hunting on town-owned land south of the interstate.

Paulman could not be reached for comment. But Deegan said he and others thought town rules should permit the use of public land by everyone, even hunters.

“He came to us expressing the concern that there was no legal town land to hunt on,” she said.

The proposal, however, generated vociferous opposition among other residents during a public hearing last month. A group of homeowners who live in the rural Brownell Mountain area led the opposition.

“My property abuts that land,” Julie Bonanno said at the Sept. 17 meeting. “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.”

Selectboard member Andy Mikell was the only board member who took a position at the meeting. He said he was opposed to opening town-owned land to hunting.

Mikell and town staff have worked on revisions to the original proposal over the past few weeks.

The Conservation Commission had proposed allowing firearms to be discharged on public land south of the interstate unless the Selectboard specifically prohibited it in a given area. The proposal kept the current restriction on firing a gun within 500 feet of any building, but the required distance from public trails would be reduced to 100 feet and to just 10 feet from roads.

The rule revisions suggested by Mikell would keep the existing ban on firearm use on town-owned land or within 500 feet of any marked public trail. He also wanted to extend restrictions to “land under grant of conservation rights or restrictions.”

But in a memo, Deegan said that would be unwise since it could include private land that includes a conservation easement. She wrote that the town would have no legal right to impose a restriction in those cases.

Still being debated is whether to permit shotgun use on public land. Town officials acknowledge that current rules are vague on that type of firearm.

Deegan’s memo said the town might consider allowing shotguns to be fired on town-owned land south of the interstate as long as they were loaded with loose shot.

“Just a thought,” she wrote. “It’s arguably much ‘cleaner’ to just prohibit all firearm discharge, but shotgun use would allow bird hunters to use town land with much reduced safety concerns (shot is rarely dangerous outside of about 200 feet, as opposed to thousands for a high-powered rifle).”

The Selectboard will debate the proposed changes on Monday, but it will likely wait until a future meeting before making a ruling, said Town Manager Rick McGuire.

The board could vote to adopt the Conservation Commission’s original proposal, he said. But McGuire thinks the board will instead alter that proposal, which would require the town to hold another public hearing.

Mikell said it’s clear that there are two very different points of view on the issue and further testimony may not change anyone’s mind. Still, he said he welcomes more public comment.

“People feel passionately about this,” Mikell said. “That’s fine. Come to the meeting and tell us about it.”