Gun range opponents taking a stand

From left, members of the Friends of Pachaug Forest Inc. Tom Gaudreau, President Ryan Snide, Vice President Bob Panko, secretary Susan Lane, Alan Cornelius, public information director Bobbi Cornelius and director of logistics Jesse Gay, stand on the edge of the Button Farm property located off Lee Road in the center of the Pachaug Forest in Griswold on Wednesday, June 20, 2018.  The group is not happy that Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state police want a gun range built on the farm property.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
From left, members of the Friends of Pachaug Forest Inc. Tom Gaudreau, President Ryan Snide, Vice President Bob Panko, secretary Susan Lane, Alan Cornelius, public information director Bobbi Cornelius and director of logistics Jesse Gay, stand on the edge of the Button Farm property located off Lee Road in the center of the Pachaug Forest in Griswold on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. The group is not happy that Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state police want a gun range built on the farm property. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Griswold — It was nearly three years ago that the search for a place to put a new state police gun range came here.

That's around when Pam Patalano saw a Facebook post by a friend in Voluntown, one of several places where the state Department of Administrative Services and Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection had said they were considering placing the new firearms training facility. The new facility would replace the existing classrooms, shooting ranges and storage facilities in Simsbury, which state police say have declined into "deplorable" conditions due to flooding of the Farmington River.

Following the lead of groups in Willington and East Windsor that had nixed proposals for the range, groups with names like Keep Voluntown Quiet had made clear they wanted no part of the potential noise and environmental hazards of such a facility. By May 2016, opponents of the facility were leading hikes, handing out brochures and soliciting signatures for petitions, warning their neighbors that the gun range could mean the sound of gunfire blasting through nearby Pachaug State Forest.

Later that month, DAS officials confirmed they had zeroed in on one site: more than 100 acres off Lee Road in Griswold, a pocket of private farmland almost completely surrounded by the state forest.

"It made me angry," Patalano said. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me? This is crazy.' That was the beginning of it."

The Lee Road farm site that state officials hope will become the state police's new firearms training facility is a still and placid place, save for the rustle of grass and the occasional bird overhead. On a recent Saturday morning Bob Panko, the vice president of the advocacy group Friends of Pachaug Forest, pointed out a great blue heron drifting high over hay bales rolled in plastic.

Panko, who identifies himself early on in most conversations as a "retired federal officer (who) carried a gun for the U.S. government" — he was a U.S. National Park Service ranger for two decades — has two arguments against the proposal.

One is the danger of development on the property, which he sees as prime agricultural land and a habitat for species of birds and mammals that he said have grown accustomed to the serenity and distance from most human activity, except for the occasional sound of dirt bikes on the forest trails and stray gunshots from the nearby Mystic Rod and Gun Club.

The other is the noise. State officials have argued that the site's location surrounded by forest is a boon: the trees will create a buffer protecting local residents from the sound of state troopers receiving recertification training on a variety of pistols and rifles, which they say is done most weekdays.

Panko and other members of the multigroup, multitown fight against the gun range say the forest is a sanctuary, not a sound buffer.

"We love it," said Barbara Cornelius, a Griswold resident and member of Friends of Pachaug Forest who lives near the forest and said she moved there mostly for its remoteness. "It's a way of life," she said.

On June 5, the sprawling parking lot at Griswold High School filled with cars for the latest public meeting on the proposal, this one kicking off the collection of public comments that will be included in the state-commissioned environmental impact evaluation that will help state officials make a final decision.

The public comment and environmental impact evaluations, required by a state law for any state project that has the potential to significantly affect the environment, will take months to complete. Lt. Marc Petruzzi, the chief of staff for the state police Office of Administrative Services, estimated a report would be finished between January and April 2019. GZA GeoEnvironmental has been contracted to oversee the report, which will include studies of the proposed facility's possible effects on noise, groundwater, traffic, air quality and "socioeconomic factors."

People came from as far south as Montville to lob a wide range of objections — emotional, religious and scientific — to the proposal. One woman argued that unhindered access to nature is a question of social justice that correlates with lower incarceration rates. A young girl read from a handwritten note about her worries that gunfire would spook the horses she likes to ride through the forest.

Most made sure to clarify one thing: their animus for the idea of a gun range surrounded by forest was separate from their feelings for the state police. They have respect for the troopers and their need for a proper training facility. They want them to have every resource they need. They just don't want those resources in the Pachaug State Forest.

Those assurances didn't stop Petruzzi from starting the meeting on defense: Backed by an enormous projected slide presentation, Petruzzi listed the names of state troopers killed in the line of duty and invoked the state police response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting before presenting more than 20 slides detailing the condition of the Simsbury training facility, complete with photographs of the flood damage caused by Hurricane Irene.

Ordinances and legislation

The proposed gun range got a relatively warm reception in Griswold at first.

At that time, the state was considering purchasing four Griswold properties whose owners had presented them as possible sites for the range, as well as properties in Voluntown, Canterbury, Sprague, Willington and East Windsor. It had considered — and rejected — other proposals to use Department of Correction gun ranges, an indoor range at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, and National Guard facilities in East Haven and East Lyme. Those facilities were deemed either too small or would have presented scheduling conflicts.

But by the time the state announced it had reached a $1.1 million purchase agreement with the owner of the Lee Road property, Lewis Button III, there was little doubt how the majority of people aware of the proposal felt about it.

In the last year the activists have been busy with public outreach and political messaging. In a Hail Mary effort to send a message, Griswold residents voted to approve an ordinance that prohibits the establishment of gun ranges within the town. A DAS spokesman said state projects are not generally subject to local ordinances but the activists said they considered it a small victory anyway. 

State Sen. Heather Somers and Rep. Kevin Skulczyck have supported multiple unsuccessful pieces of state legislation, including an amendment to a Senate bill that would have forced the Lee Road property, once purchased, to become part of Pachaug State Forest and a bill in the House that would have required an exhaustive study of alternative sites across the state.

Patalano, who now runs a group called Save Pachaug Forest, said the momentum isn't slowing down as the environmental impact evaluation process churns through the bureaucratic gears.

Opponents of the gun range helped galvanize the crowd at the June 5 scoping meeting and encouraged dozens of people to submit written comments to GZA, the firm conducting the environmental impact statement.

On Thursday, the deadline for submitting comments, Voluntown First Selectman Tracey Hanson said in an interview that she was finishing up her submission and planned to email it in later that day. Hanson opposes the proposal, saying a gun range potentially could drive away the tourism dollars that her town depends on as a rural municipality mostly covered by nontaxable state forestland. 

"We don't have that much room for development of any sort," she said. "People are not going to come here to enjoy the quality of the area if it's not quiet."

Collecting decibel levels

On June 13, Friends of Pachaug Forest stationed people at varying distances from the Lee Road site to listen while troopers fired various weapons into a sand berm on the site; contractors collected decibel levels from the test and will include the effect of the noise in the environmental impact evaluation report.

Standing on the site almost a week later, Panko pulled out a map of the area showing volunteers — each illustrated with a small image of a frowning face — who heard the gunshots from their houses.

Patalano said more public awareness, while not officially a metric the environmental impact process will measure, could push the state DAS officials overseeing the environmental impact evaluation to examine more angles of the project.

"There's a lot more pressure," she said. "There's a lot more eyes on them."

And, the opponents of the state's plan for the Lee Road site said, they plan to make the gun range an issue during the upcoming race for governor; many said they already have pushed candidates for their stance on the issue.

"It will be asked at every venue I go to, of every candidate," Somers said. "We are going to continue to fight this every step of the way."

m.shanahan@theday.com

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