Following a lengthy queue of public comments, in which supporters of the humane society far outnumbered defenders of the public gun range, county commissioners Tuesday voted to begin talks with the sheriff about relocating the range to where deputies now train.
As it stands now, if a deal is struck with the sheriff, the range would be moved only about 150 feet further from the animal shelter than where it stands now, which may not fully satisfy the concerns regarding noise of those who spoke out Tuesday morning.
In a vote taken Tuesday afternoon, commissioners agreed to a motion that will keep the thoroughfare to the gun range open for the time being as talks begin with Sheriff A.J. Smith.
The non-profit Franklin County Humane Society closed the roadway, which it insists is a private driveway and not a public road, about three weeks ago.
At their Sept. 17 budget hearing, commissioners responded by voting to freeze $36,278 it allocated as part of its 2019-20 budget, promising to release the monies from reserve for contingencies if the humane society backed off its closure. The commissioners made no mention Tuesday regarding the freeze, a move which had angered humane society supporters.
“Funding should be renewed. To take money from what is a gem of this county is kind of shortsighted,” said Doug Jimerson, a member of the humane society’s board of directors.
“The humane society is a big asset to this community,” said Bruce Hall. “To stop any funding for that facility is unconscionable. I hope you’ll reconsider.”
Leading off for the speakers during public comment was Cutler Edwards, who has championed the annual Brewfest on St. George Island, the humane society’s largest single annual fundraiser.
He said the society discovered only recently the road they chose to close, which provides access to the public gun range, “is actually just a driveway, not actually a roadway, and wholly owned by the humane society.”
County Attorney Michael Shuler said he believes the thoroughfare is actually a public road, and that in the event of litigation, a court would have to decide the issue.
“Do we want to engage in litigation?” he asked commissioners, none of whom indicated they preferred that course of action. “The court’s going to look at the facts, and consider them.”
Edwards told commissioners that within the next 12 to 24 months, the humane society will construct two buildings on their acreage which have been donated to them. “They are going to obscure that driveway, there won’t be available ingress or egress,” he said. “There is other access, it’s not the only one people can use to get there.”
He said the issue boils down to one of public safety, because the range is unsupervised “much the same ways popular places to shoot out in the woods are.”
Edwards said the range is often littered with liquor bottles, and that it is within gunshot of three public sites, the county jail and yard, and the landfill, in addition to the humane society area where volunteers walk dogs.
“It’s an unregulated Wild West of a gun range,” he said, noting that “an awful lot of lead gets left in the ground” which is bad for the chemistry of groundwater and stormwater.
“I think we need safe public facilities,” he said.
Speakers defend humane society's role
Karen Martin, director of the humane society for the past 10 years, then offered an overview of the organization’s work, stressing it is the only place in the county for stray and owner-surrendered animals.
She said the facility takes hundreds of animals annually from county animal control, and seeks to have them adopted, when the county’s five-day stray hold policy has ended.
“We don’t warehouse animals, all our animals are fully vetted, tested, spayed and neutered,” Martin said.
She said the shelter has a 93 to 97 percent live release rate. “Ninety percent is considered no kill,” she said.
Martin said the average vetting of a healthy puppy costs $250, considerably more than the adoption fee of $150.
“The county’s monies we receive are critical for our mission,” she said, noting the shelter offers a voucher program for those in need. “These people don't have resources to care for their animals as they would like.”
Martin closed by summing up a key reason for the road closure/
“A large percentage of our dogs are afraid of loud noises, gunfire, fireworks,” she said. “They want to climb out, they want to hide. They will grab that fence and tear up their mouths to try to get away.
“There is concern for volunteers and the safety of staff,” she said. “Our volunteers don’t want to be that close to a lethal weapon.”
Amidst the show of support for the humane society, two gun range supporters, Ray Tyre and Dewitt Polous, spoke out as well.
Tyre, from Carrabelle, said the county gave the humane society the land they now occupy in 1988, “years after the Franklin County gun range was built and established.”
He said since that time, specifically from 1996, the earliest records he could find, the county has given the society $904,236, not including the value of the land.
Tyre likened the current situation to “a dog viciously attacking the hand that feeds them. At the very least I see it as extremely ungrateful.
“The range was in effect long before we gave them the property. Why didn’t they say this was not suitable (when they received the land)?” he said. “In the end this is more about another agenda than the animals at all.”
Polous praised the work of the humane society and noted that “I’m a dog owner, a cat owner and I have 30 chickens and turkeys.
“The firing range has been there forever. It was there before the humane society,” he went on to say. “It’s not like there’s plenty of land to build another one.”
Polous suggested the humane society consider making a donation towards the creation of a new firing range. “We can work together and figure this out,” he said.
Among the speakers who appeared were Caroline Ilardi, who worked with the city to create the Apalachicola Dog Park, who urged the county to have range users help fund it, much the same way the “user sponsored park” was created in Apalachicola.
“Let them pay for things the county can’t afford to do,” she said. “Have the people who use the gun range do the same thing.”
Jimerson’s wife Karen, a writer on topics of travel, pets and gardening, said she and her husband moved here because it was pet friendly.
“The animal shelter is like the beating heart of the community for pet lovers,” she said. “Re-fund the humane society; you actually need to give them more.”
Allan Feifer asked that a committee be created of gun enthusiast and pet people that could generate suggestions on how best to solve the problem. “This is a long term problem that’s been brewing for a long time,” he said.
“I don’t have any hidden agenda,” said Hall. “I’m a gun owner, I have used the range. Let’s find another place for it.”
Patrick Bailey, retired from the military, said he has “seen the effect the humane society has had within our community.
“Dogs contribute a great deal indirectly to the financial benefit of this county,” he said. “If (the issue) of guns vs dogs goes to national exposure, I have a feeling this is not going to reflect well if we alienate animals and go totally pro guns.
“Guns can move off to a different location, Bailey said. “Let’s leave the animals alone; move the guns somewhere else.”
Commissioners voice frustration over sudden closure
In keeping the status quo, the commissioners took no action on a proposal offered by Bud Hayes, president of the humane society board, and shared by Shuler, to close down the range between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily.
Commissioners voiced frustration that the unilateral closure action by the humane society had left them in a tough bind.
“I’ve been here 68 years and I don’t think is right for the humane society to ask the county commission to (shut down the range) for a select few,” said Chair Noah Lockley. “You know whoever accepted that piece of property from the previous county commission board, after asking for land, and they got it, I’m quite sure they knew that there was a gun range,” he said. “They aint said nothing about the sheriff’s gun range.”
Shuler said the sheriff’s range is about 600 feet from the animal shelter, about 150 feet further than the public range. “Could we create a sound barrier, fast growing vegetation to muffle sound?” he asked. “There’s not going to be a measurable reduction of the sound."
“They got the same amount of noise, but they’re not complaining about that,” Lockley said. “They’re acting like kids. Let’s sit down and work it out.
“We’re not supposed to change every time a new set of people come in,” he said. “We all know dogs have problems with guns, with noise. That wasn’t mentioned when they asked the county to give them the property. After they got the property they want to change the rules.”
Commissioner Smokey Parrish said he spoke with Smith, and he said he would be willing to open to the public his range, which he is refurbishing with Hurricane Michael reimbursement monies from FEMA.
“We have had no time to research an alternative. Hunting season is right around the corner; it kind of puts the board with no option,” Parrish said.
He also said the cost must be considered, since the sheriff’s range could call for round the clock supervision. “Is that an advantageous way to spend taxpayers’ dollars? That’s the quagmire the county is facing,” said Parrish. “I don’t think the humane society is looking at the position they’re putting the board in.
“You have forced the board to take actions to protect themselves and the general public,” he said.
Commissioner Ricky Jones said Tuesday’s meeting was the first time he had heard the humane society planned to expand its services.
“That could have been a simple discussion with the county,” he said. “That’s the first conversation we’ve had about this whole thing. That’s the problem.
“We as commissioners have to cover the whole county, not just the humane society,” Jones said. “We have to give reasonable answers to everyone. This is not an us vs. you mentality; that’s not what the county commission is doing.”
Commissioner Bert Boldt said the county should look into creating a “NRA standard approved” range at a different site. “Maybe with an archery range, I’d like to think about that part,” he said.
“What scared the county commission is this was summarily shut down,” Boldt said. “That’s something that needed to be vetted way before it was summarily declared.”