Hunters and target-shooters bump up against homeowners and hikers

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Pine Bush path: Trails in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve may be frequented by hunters or hikers. The preserve allows both activities, although certain types of hunting may only be allowed in designated areas. 

Some people like to hunt or shoot targets; other people like to hike or simply enjoy quiet and safety in their rural homes. Current discussions in two of the Helderbergs Hilltowns point up concerns raised as their distinct cultures clash.

In Knox, a stray bullet stirred debate at a town board meeting over what jurisdiction the town had over private land when it came to safety; while in Berne, a debate for whether hunters and hikers can coexist continues.

At the Knox Town Board meeting on Sept. 19, William Matuszak addressed the board with concerns that someone had fired a bullet through the wall of and into his garage.

Matuszak told the board that he had found a bullet and bullet hole inside his garage around 3 p.m. on a Sunday about a month ago, and believes it was fired by someone at the Helderberg Rod & Gun Club. The club is located on Quay Road, about a mile from Matuszak’s home on Bell Road.

The club has run into problems with neighbors before, with complaints of noise and bullets nearly hitting homes. Michael Gdula, the chairman of the club, declined to comment to The Enterprise before the completion of the sheriff’s investigation.

Matuszak said he called the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating. He also said that two members of the Helderberg Rod & Gun Club came to his home, as well.

“They looked around; their reports say it came from my neighbor’s house … ,” he said. “They issued a report to the Sheriff’s department, and the Sheriff’s department didn’t agree.”

Matuszak said his concern was that people could go to the club and use it at any time, unattended.

“They’ve got a fence across the front,” he added. “That’s going to keep people out but, if somebody wants to come in they can get in — they’ve got to have some kind of security there; they’ve got to have a rangemaster there.”

“At this point, we’re not saying it was the gun club or it wasn’t,” said Albany County Sheriff’s Inspector Charles Higgins earlier this month.

According to Higgins, the homeowner had been away for about two weeks and returned to find the bullet and hole in his garage wall. Higgins told The Enterprise he found it very unlikely that the bullet came from the direction of the gun club, and expects the investigation to take weeks to be completed. No arrests have been made, he said.

Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis, who noted that he is a member of the gun club, said he had spoken with Sheriff’s Investigator Amy Kowalski, who would provide details on the report to the town attorney when the office is ready, he said.

This Tuesday, Investigator Chris Kopec told The Enterprise that his colleague, Investigator J.T. Campbell, was overseeing the case, which is still currently under investigation. Kopec said that nothing has been determined at this time.

“It’s not a little club any more,” said Matuszak, who said he has witnessed the Helderberg Rod & Gun Club grow since moving to the town in 1995.

Town attorney John Dorfman suggested that he could speak with the club about receiving a safety inspection from the National Rifle Association. According to Dorfman, the cost of an inspection is $300 for an NRA-member range, and $350 for non-members.

Dorfman requested that the board make a motion to authorize him to contact Helderberg Rod & Gun Club and ask if the club would pay for and undergo an inspection, and if the club did not wish to pay, the town would do so.

Lefkaditis objected to the town paying for an inspection on private property, and noted that, without a report from the sheriff’s office, Matuszak’s assertion that the bullet came from the club was hearsay.

“John, correct me if I’m wrong, because we ran into this last year,” said Lefkaditis. “We’re not allowed to spend money to improve or benefit an individual property-owner.”

“We’re not doing that,” Dorfman said.

He explained that he was trying to avoid a lawsuit against the town by assuring that the town did not violate the zoning ordinance: “No activity shall create a physical hazard by reason of fire, explosion, radiation, or other such cause, to persons or property in the same or adjacent districts.”

Lefkaditis said that the Knox Building Inspector should be responsible for enforcing zoning.

Councilman Earl Barcomb, noting that a gun club would likely want to be approved by a group like the NRA, made a motion to authorize Dorfman to talk to the club about doing so, but not having the town pay for it. The board voted, 4 to 0, in favor of this, with Lefkaditis abstaining.

Last Thursday, Dorfman told The Enterprise that, at this time, he doesn’t believe there would be legal ramifications for Knox.

In New York State, a firearm cannot be discharged within 500 feet of a dwelling unless it is owned or leased by that person or by someone he or she knows. For bow-hunting, the limit is within 250 feet for crossbows and 150 feet for longbows.

However, the regulation does not apply to “the authorized use of a pistol, rifle or target range regularly operated and maintained by a police department or other law enforcement agency or by any duly organized membership corporation,” according to the state’s Environmental Conservation Law.

Helderberg Rod & Gun Club, located at 386 Quay Rd., has been operating since 1948, and was incorporated as a not-for-profit in 1956, according to its website. The club caps its membership at 225 members, who have access to both indoor and outdoor ranges, as well as nature trails and an area for hunting deer and small game.

To hunt or not to hunt?

At a recent town board meeting in Berne, Dennis Palow, who is running as a Republican challenger to the all-Democrat town council, asked the board whether bow-hunting would be permitted at the town-owned property of Switzkill Farm.

Berne Councilwoman and Switzkill Farm Board liaison Karen Schimmer told Palow that this had been discussed by the Switzkill Farm Board since Palow had approached the town board about the issue months before. Schimmer said the board ruled against it, as there was a concern about policing hunting in an area frequented by hikers.

Both Councilman James Cooke and Supervisor Kevin Crosier floated the idea of having a set-aside place and time period to allow hunting with bows or guns.

“Some people don’t think you should ever shoot a deer, with a bow or a gun or anything, and unfortunately those people have a voice too … ,” said Cooke. “If I were sitting on the [Switzkill Farm] board, I would be talking about, ‘Well, how could we make this possible?’”

“This was not a statement against hunting,” replied Schimmer. “Many of the people who sit on that board are hunters … It was a question of safety for the public who is up there.”

Schimmer noted that there are other areas that hunters could frequent.

“When was the last time somebody shot a person walking on the trail with a hunting bow?” Palow asked.

“It’s to be continued, I’d say,” said Councilman Joseph Golden, of the matter.

Schimmer told The Enterprise on Tuesday that Switzkill Farm fits the definition of a town park, where hunting, as well as firearms or other weapons, are not allowed in Berne.

Town law defines a park as “Any park, playground, athletic field, swimming pool, beach, Town-owned land and land under water owned by the Town of Berne and any recreation area under the jurisdiction of the Town Board, whether the same be now or hereafter owned or acquired by the Town of Berne in fee or otherwise, including all land under, and space above, the surface of the ground.”

Hunting is allowed in other town parks in the state, such as in the town of Glenville in Schenectady County, although only in certain areas of the town’s Sanders Preserve during hunting season.

Schimmer also said that the the New York Municipal Insurance Reciprocal said that insurance premiums would double for the town if hunting were to be allowed on its property, and that events at buildings like the Switzkill lodge would not be permitted during hunting season.

Schimmer reiterated that there are other areas to hunt in Berne. Cole Hill State Forest, which has over 800 acres, and the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area has almost 5,000. Schimmer also said Palow, who has been the only one to ask about hunting in Switzkill Farm, owns, 16 acres of land to hunt on.

“We are not banning him from the land,” Schimmer said of Palow. “Or any other particular person … We are banning one particular use.”

She said the area was created to host other activities, such as educational programs, dog-walking, geocaching, and hiking.

“The farm is functioning just as the Switzkill Farm Board planned,” Schimmer said.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website, many state lands are open for hunting during the appropriate seasons. In the Hilltowns, this includes the Louise E. Keir and Margaret Burke Wildlife Management Areas. Nearby, this includes the Albany Pine Bush preserve, and John Boyd Thacher State Park.

“There are people that see a hunter and, because they don’t know it’s allowed, they get scared,” said Joel Hecht, stewardship director at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, of hikers that visit the preserve.

Hecht said that, while complete safety cannot be assured, hunters are trained to be safe and responsible, having to take safety courses and other training before being licensed to hunt in New York State. The stereotype of men drinking beer in the woods that “shoot anything that moves,” is a fallacy, he said.

According to Karl Parker, a senior wildlife biologist with Region 4 of the Department of Environmental Conservation, bow-hunters especially take precaution. They are often elevated in a treestand, where the ground acts as a natural backstop, and their height gives them more awareness of their surroundings.

Hunters in general, said Parker, must be especially aware of their surroundings, as they sit quietly and wait for an animal. Hikers, who often are louder as they move about a trail, are not only easily noticed, but may not even realize how close they come to hunters who remain quiet and still, said Parker.

Parker also said hikers can wear what is known as “hunter orange,” the bright color easily visible to humans but appearing dull to deer, if they are worried about being seen. He noted that the season is compressed into a matter of months, so hikers often won’t be out alongside hunters during most of the year.

According to Rick Georgeson, public information officer for Region 4 of the DEC, there has been only one known incident of a bow-hunting accident since the agency began tracking hunting accidents in New York about 50 years ago. The perpetrator had struck a fellow hunter while being out illegally after dark.

“There has never been an incident in New York State of a non-hunter being struck by an arrow from a hunter,” Georgeson said in an email to The Enterprise.

According to DEC’s website, there were 13 shooting accidents in 2016, four of which were fatal; all involved either rifles or shotguns.

Georgeson said hunting has a lower injury rate than golf, citing a statistic from the Firearms Industry Trade Association which says that hunting has a 0.05 injury rate, while golfing has a 0.16 rate.

“Basically, hunting is a way of managing wildlife population,” Hecht said.

The Department of Environmental Conservation determines how many deer can be taken in a season, for example, said Hecht. By keeping the population from exploding, deer herds don’t starve to death by depleting their own food supply, or by destroying habitats like forests underbrush or the pitch pine tree in the Pine Bush Preserve.

Fewer deer also means less risk of a car accident from deer going into the road. This also means fewer deer eating shrubbery or grass in suburban areas, which surround the Pine Bush.

“Probably the person who would find it a nuisance is a farmer,” said Hecht, who explained that deer are as a much a problem in rural areas, but for different reasons, such as destruction of crops, as well as even more of a risk for car accidents because their habitats often butt up against highways.

“It is our view that the deer population needs to be managed,”  agreed Parker.

There are about 100 Wildlife Management Units across New York State. In each unit where deer hunting is allowed, a citizen task force determines the number of antlerless deer that can be taken each season, said Parker. If a population is lower than normal, this decreases; if it is above normal, the number increases.

The Hilltowns are mainly covered by Wildlife Management Units 4G and 4H, where only applicants with preference points, which are awarded to those who applied for and did not receive their first choice permit in previous years, have a chance of receiving a permit this year.

In Wildlife Management Unit 4J, an area that includes the city of Albany, the towns of Colonie, Guilderland, half of Bethlehem, and parts of New Scotland, the chances of receiving one are high.

The antlerless deer include both female and immature male deer, Parker said. Any number of antlered deer may be taken by a licensed hunter in the appropriate time and place.

The permits, known as deer-management permits, are issued by lottery to hunters who apply. The applications are due by Oct. 1.

Schimmer said she believed hunting at Switzkill Farm, which is 356 acres in comparison to the thousands of acres of state land nearby, would not significantly affect a deer population due to the farm’s size.

“For the last two years now, I’ve been asking to bow hunt at Game Farm Road,” said Palow.

Palow acknowledged the number of areas Schimmer listed to hunt in Berne, but noted, “There’s a lot of places to hike in Berne,” listing areas such as John Boyd Thacher State Park and Cole Hill State Forest.

Palow noted that hunting bows typically shoot only about 40 yards at most, and that the season only lasts from the beginning of October until about a week before Thanksgiving.

“I don’t think Game Farm Road should be considered a park,” he said, of the definition in the town law, noting that it mostly consists of trails through the landscape.

Palow said, if premiums were to increase by allowing hunting at Switzkill Farm, he would like Schimmer to present that at the meeting.

He said he may request the town board to put the decision to a vote at the next meeting.

In the Albany Pine Bush, there are regulations specific to certain area, said Hecht. For example, bowhunting is allowed in the park for big game, but shotgun hunting is allowed only in parts west of Route 155, outside of Wildlife Management Unit 4J.

Neil Gifford, conservation director at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, noted that an area directly behind the Discovery Center building at the Preserve, does not allow bow-hunting between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., because school groups frequent the area.

According to Hecht, the DEC rules and regulation to hunting on private land also apply to public land, such as shooting a firearm 500 feet away from a residence. Rifles are not used at the park because, “a rifle slug can travel for miles,” while a shotgun can fire shot 50 to 75 yards.

“Generally speaking, knowledge is power,” said Hecht, who added that those unaware of hunting may get the wrong idea about the pastime.

“But, on the flip side,”  he later noted, “There is no guarantee.”


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