R’ville neighbors sue Park Police over its firing range

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

The New York State Park Police Academy is located in Rensselaerville, and recently created a firing range for its training cadets to which neighbors have objected.

RENSSELAERVILLE — For months, residents living near the facility formerly known as Camp Cass have been hearing noises. Some thought it was a hunter who had gotten ahold of a machine gun due the rapid firing. This continued most weekdays, residents said. But on Dec. 22, it is scheduled to stop.

It will be a small victory for these Rensselaerville residents, as the sounds of gunfire — the results of a newly created firing range to train state park police — may return if a court hearing rules in the state’s favor.

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s Park Police Academy and Training Facility has used the remote, 30-acre site for almost a decade.

Local public pressure led to the closing of Camp Cass, a juvenile detention center, after a kitchen worker there was raped and kidnapped by knife-point by an inmate in 2004.

A State Environmental Quality Review Assessment of the proposed firing range was completed by the state park’s office in August of this year. By late October into early November, neighbors were hearing gunfire, said Dana Salazar, an attorney representing a group of neighbors of the facility who have filed an Article 78 lawsuit against the state park’s office. An article 78 suit allows citizens to challenge government.

The petitioners — Richard Amedure, Robert Brent Thompson, Shawn Styer, Barbara Rau, Robert U. Rau, John Haines, John Kudlack, and Isabela Burdujan — all live within a mile of the facility. Their petition objects to the fact that the initial announcement of the facility did not mention firearms training, nor did it inform the public of the firing range.

Randy Simons, public information officer for the parks office, said in an emailed statement on Tuesday that the park police could not comment on the pending lawsuit.

“We take the community’s concerns seriously, and have agreed to suspend firing at the range after this week of training while we evaluate further measures to dampen sound and reduce noise while the legal issues are addressed in court,” he said.

After the lawsuit was filed on Dec. 7 with Albany County, a hearing was held on Dec. 8 and Dec. 11. Salazar said that that the two parties agreed at the hearing that the firing range would remain open for two more weeks and then close until the case is settled. The next court date is scheduled for Jan. 5 at the Albany County Supreme Court.

The state parks office announced that the former Camp Cass property would become the location of the academy in February of 2008, describing it as an ideal location due to its proximity to the state capital. The release from the parks office said that the new location would save $382,000 annually in areas such as lodging and space rental.

The property is located within the Rensselaerville State Forest.

Plaintiffs’ concerns

Salazar said that it appeared the decision to construct a firing range occurred in 2015. Memorandums on investigating the site dating back to the fall of 2015 are among the documents included in the SEQRA submitted by the park’s office.

State and federal agencies are immune to local zoning laws, but are required to comply with a SEQRA review, said Salazar. She objects to the fact that the state’s parks office listed itself as the lead agency and the regulating agency in the SEQRA, and that construction began before the SEQRA had been declared, she said.

The range was constructed in the spring of 2017, according to a statement in the SEQRA.

The SEQRA also states that construction of the range could cause surface water pollution and disturbance, pollution of groundwater through lead contamination, and noise pollution, but that these effects would be mitigated by annually testing a well on the property. The SEQRA also says that a concrete wall, soil berms, and an existing stand of evergreens would mitigate sound. Salazar said that this is not enough to prevent either noise or lead pollution.

“Some of them are right next door,” said Salazar, of the residents affected by the noise.

Salazar also objected to the lack of any efforts to notify neighbors. She said residents did not realize there was a rifle range nearby until they heard gunfire.

She also said construction of the range affected waterways due to runoff created, causing a portion of a waterway to flood and wash out the road.

Animals, like dogs and horses, also became skittish due to the noises of gunfire, said Salazar.

Salazar was formerly an employee of Tabner, Ryan, Keniry LLP. the law firm which represents the town of Rensselaerville, for about three years, she said. She currently works at her own firm, Salazar and Erickson, LLP, in East Greenbush, in Rensselaer County.

Board unaware

An announcement from two neighbors of the facility — Brent Thompson and Shawn Styer — stirred some town board members at a meeting held last Thursday. Board member John Dolce repeatedly asked why the town had not been notified of the suit. Thompson said it was due to a lack of time to submit an article 78.

Both Dolce and board member Marion Cooke said they had also heard gunfire from their homes, but did not know the source of it. Other audience members spoke up as well, saying they, too, had heard gunfire.

Styer, who lives on Route 143 and is one of the group bringing the suit, said at the meeting that one of the concerns of the residents is that the facility will be used by other law-enforcement agencies to practice shooting.

“This is quite serious,” said Thompson, a self-described “weekender” who said he was one of the residents working directly with Salazar. Thompson said at the meeting that the effects of the gunfire included Styer having to leave his home office to take phone calls in his basement, and resident Sarah Amedure being knocked from her horse after it was scared by the noise.

“We didn’t buy into an existing nuisance,” said Thompson.

Thompson said that the efforts to mitigate the sound have done little, and possibly have made the problem worse; he said the concrete wall and the cleared trees cause the noise to be “reflected” and be louder.

He was also critical of a sound study cited in the SEQRA: a similar proposal to the range in Rensselaerville, the sound study was included in an environmental assessment of a proposed state-commissioned shooting range in a tract of state-owned game land in Burke County, North Carolina.

The SEQRA stated that the assessment found that sound levels from gunfire decreased  from about 119 decibels to about 60 decibels 0.35 miles away from the site of the gunfire. Thompson said that this was inaccurate, and that guns used by the park police fire at about 160 decibels. The 119-decibel level refers to when an AR-15 rifle was fired in an acoustic tube that dampened the sound, and the report states that, at peak control, it was around 130 decibels.

Thompson was also critical of the use of this assessment because the planned range was scrapped in July of 2015 after there was a outcry from those concerned about the gunfire.

“This is state land, how could they be exempt?” asked Dolce, at the meeting. “We need to have a say in this,” he later added.

Rensselaerville Supervisor Valerie Lounsbury had already stated at the meeting, in response to a complaint made from a resident about their neighbor’s dog’s incessant barking, that the town has no noise ordinance. She said she is concerned that three roads surround the former Camp Cass property, and that the town board would look into how it will address this. Lounsbury did not seek re-election in November and this was her last meeting.

SEQRA specifications

The assessment form for the SEQRA includes information on the firing range, describing it as follows:

The SEQRA projected that 2.75 acres of the state property of 31.5 acres would need to be cleared of trees, and 10 stonedust firing lanes — each 10 feet wide and 100 yards long — would be built. Concrete sidewalks and a sidewall would also be installed, as well as a back berm and overhead baffles. The project also called for creating an access road from Route 358, a parking lot, and stormwater-management structures.

Activities on the range would occur two to four days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, from October through November and from February through March, for cadet training; there would also be three to four hours of limited in-service training throughout the year, but with limited use in July and August. It could also be used by visiting groups, the report says.

Pistols, shotguns, and AR-15 rifles would be the primary weapons used at the range.

The stormwater runoff would eventually be discharged into the Fox Creek, according to the report. In order to prevent lead contamination, the facility would inspect and maintain the berms, sift the berms to remove bullets and bullet fragments, control the soil pH with lime and phosphate, conduct stormwater management with dry swale filter beds and dams, and stagger lanes and plant vegetation to prevent berm erosion.

Precipitation would be tracked, and stormwater samples would be collected twice a year. Remediation would occur after five years or 100,000 rounds per firing lane, which would be tracked in a log.

Corrected on April 10, 2018: Dana Salazar’s law-firm history was corrected to Tabner, Ryan, Keniry LLP.

More Hilltowns News

  • Nathan Elble

    Read or listen to Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education incumbent Nathan Elble’s responses to questions from The Enterprise about the school’s budget; the relationship between a school board, district superintendent, and taxpayers; and what issues will be most critical to the district in the next three years.

  • Westerlo Supervisor William Bichteman laid out a worst-case-scenario fiscal plan Tuesday that would see the 2021 tax levy increase anywhere from 10- to 15-percent. Bichteman stressed that the scenario was projected using “best-guess” budgeting based on a lack of information regarding sales-tax revenue from higher levels of government and that the probabilities are almost entirely unknown, but that he wants to start having the conversation before it’s too late.

  • Although the coronavirus has created a lapse in funding for Westerlo’s Comprehensive Plan Committee, Supervisor William Bichteman said that budget transfers will ensure that the $5,000 lost in grant money the state has put on hold will get to the committee with town funds.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.