After suit closed gun range, state has plans to reopen

— Image from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

A site map shows where the proposed firing range, which is mostly already constructed, would be on the property of the park police training facility in Rensselaerville. 

RENSSELAERVILLE — Almost a year after a lawsuit closed down a gun range for state park police training in Rensselaerville, plans to possibly reopen the range were released on Wednesday.

The plans are part of proposed upgrades to the park police training facility at the former Camp Cass, and include the possibility of restructuring the range or moving it inside. Two public scoping periods to gather public comment on the proposed upgrades will be held at the facility on March 27 — one from noon to 2 p.m. and another from 6 to 8 p.m..

A group of eight neighbors of the facility who live less than a mile away filed an Article 78 lawsuit in December 2017 after they started to hear gunfire a couple of months prior, describing instances where their animals became skittish or they had trouble working from home due to the noise. In addition to the noise, the suit also expressed concerns that the range could contaminate groundwater with lead.

Dana Salazar, managing partner at Salazar and Erikson in East Greenbush, the attorney representing the group, told The Enterprise in 2017 she objected to the state’s parks office listing itself as the lead agency and the regulating agency for the state environmental quality review.

State and federal agencies are immune to local zoning laws, but are required to comply with a SEQRA review. In the original application for the range, a negative SEQRA declaration was issued — meaning the range would have little environmental impact.

About four months later, the lawsuit was settled in court; it included an agreement to close the range indefinitely as well as to retract the SEQRA declaration, according to Salazar. However, this past December, the parks department announced that a noise study would be conducted to review the possibility of reopening the range.

Salazar told The Enterprise on Friday that the park police were contacted and stopped the noise study after the neighbors objected. She said that the stipulation was that the facility could not be used until after a SEQR has been completed. She said she was not sure if a study could be conducted now or if a study done by firing guns was even necessary.

The facility originally operated as a juvenile detention facility known as Camp Cass, with a capacity to house 25 males, ages 14 to 17. Public pressure led to its closing after several escapes and arrests of inmates. It was reopened as a park police facility to cheers in 2008. Officials at the time said they had no intention of opening a shooting range there, as one at John Boyd Thacher State Park was open at the time; this range was eventually removed from Thacher Park.

Most of the residents at Rensselaerville’s town board meeting on Thursday were upset over the proposal for another firing range, said Supervisor John Dolce. He told The Enterprise on Monday that he plans to attend one of the public hearings, saying that he was shocked that the state could move forward with plans like this.

Dolce’s primary concerns are the noise from gunfire and the fact that the range’s backstop faces Cheese Hill Road, he said. He hopes that the town can provide feedback and that the project will include some sort of noise reduction or be turned into an indoor range, even if it is more expensive.

“We’d rather it cost them than our property values,” he said.

Facility plans

While the SEQR for the range submitted in 2017 was given a negative declaration, the current Full Environmental Assessment Form, issued on Wednesday, gives a positive declaration due to possible contamination of surface and groundwater and possible noise from construction and the range.

As before, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has listed itself as the lead agency. Salazar said that the neighbors sent a notice that they objected to this and asked that the state Department of Environmental Conservation act as the lead agency instead, believing that the DEC would be more objective.

Salazar said that Rensselaerville Planning Board Chairman Richard Amedure, who is one of the plaintiffs, does not have a conflict of interest because the planning board is not directly reviewing the proposal.

Park police recruits use their weapons in a variety of ways, the scoping document says, with weapons including small arms, shotguns, and AR-15 rifles. Each recruit must fire a minimum of 1,776 rounds for basic training.

Firearm training makes up two to four weeks of the recruits’ 27-week program, with training occurring eight to 10 hours each day, with one training period occurring after dark. The facility also hosts other training sessions for park police officers — including their annual training — and other state and outside agencies.

The plans outlined in the draft scoping document include not only completing construction of the range, but also adding a new dormitory and active shooter training facility. Salazar said that, were it to pass the SEQR, an indoor range would be less problematic because it would not cause noise or lead pollution.

But she also said that intentions to expand the number of visitors to the facility would be a concern as it would increase the use of the range.

Brent Thompson, one of the plaintiffs, said he plans to attend the March 27 public hearing. He said that, while an indoor range would be preferable to an outdoor one, he would like there to be no range hosted at the facility at all.

“I hope they go with the option of using one of the existing facilities in New York … ,” he said. “Those guys aren’t good neighbors.”

Salazar also said that it was a concern that the document shows no other locations for the range. The scoping document states that park police recruits must travel now to use another shooting range, which interrupts their training.

“At this point we are reviewing the scope report,” Salazar said on Friday, of how she and her clients will proceed. “We are still discussing our next steps.”

She said that it is possible she and her clients would file a second lawsuit, depending on the decision made on the facility.

“It remains a very viable option,” she said.

More Hilltowns News

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  • The Berne Town Board voted 5-to-0 last week on a resolution that would allow it to sell Switzkill Farm to Albany County. The sale is subject to a permissive referendum.

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