Police firing range under the gun

Cops lose range if sale of city land approved
Jul. 07, 2013 @ 08:13 AM

A developer has his eye on nearly 2,000 acres off Zacks Fork Road, more than one-fourth of which is owned by the City of Lenoir, which happens to find itself in need of cash.

And that's making Lenoir Police Chief Scott Brown nervous, along with other law enforcement officials in the region.

Within that otherwise undeveloped 568 acres is a cleared off portion, about 100 yards long by 50 yards wide, that is used as a firing range by the Lenoir police and several other law enforcement agencies. Constructed in the late 1990s, the range is widely accepted as one of the nicest police firing ranges in the region, Brown said.

It is the preferred firing range for the Hudson, Granite Falls, Appalachian State University and Blowing Rock police departments, and the local staff of the N.C. Highway Patrol, Alcohol Law Enforcement and the N.C. National Guard. It also is used by Basic Law Enforcement Training students from Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, and the Lenoir Citizens Police Academy.

The City of Lenoir recently was approached by a developer offering to buy what is referred to as the “old watershed property,” owned by Lenoir since 1923. The developer, Southern Land NC, is trying to buy 1,915 acres in all, including parcels from private owners. The offer to purchase the city’s acreage is $852,520, well below the $2.8 million value set in a 2006 appraisal, though that was before the real estate collapse and subsequent recession. City leaders are seeking a new appraisal.

Because of its isolated locale, noise complaints are non-existent, and the annual maintenance cost to the city is only about $1,500. The range consists of two main firing lines (one 15-lane line for pistol and shotgun use, and one eight-lane for rifles), a two-story range house, a military surplus box used for storage, an interchangeable shoot house used for building-entry simulations, a K-9 obstacle course, three shooting berms, and a parking area.

The range is used between 90 and 100 days each year.

"This (range) has been very helpful in enabling us to complete our yearly training," said Hudson Police Chief Andy Day. "In the past we have used other ranges. We at one point traveled as far away as Boone to use a range"

Day said the range affords easy and quick access for his officers, and "the facilities are ideal."

If the sale goes through, the city would have to consider building a new range -- Brown estimates that could cost $500,000 or more, though City Manager Lane Bailey has said he thinks it could be done for about $250,000. Developing the city's land also may require EPA and OSHA oversight because the soil berms into which officers shoot has high lead content from the bullets. Any mandated cleanup could carry a steep cost, Brown said in a letter to Bailey outlining his concerns about the possible loss of the range.

The nearest alternative, according to Brown's letter, is sharing the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office firing range on the old county landfill on Lick Mountain.

Dennis Hopkins, director of the Basic Law Enforcement Training program at CCC&TI, said he has the luxury of access to both ranges, if needed. The program conducts two academies each year. Students in each 16-week program use the range for a total of 60 hours of firearms training.

"Obviously, we are a partner with all law enforcement agencies and train in several locales," Hopkins said. "Lenoir has an excellent facility, it is very well maintained. It's perfect, out of site and very private."

Blowing Rock Police Chief Eric Brown said the remoteness of Lenoir's firing range means there are no noise complaints from neighbors, a big plus for his department. He said noise complaints about the range in Watauga County caused him to consider using Lenoir's.

If the range remains, Scott Brown would consider charging agencies to use it to offset the cost of maintaining it, and even turning a small profit.

While the new property appraisal will play a significant role in the city council’s decision about whether to sell the property, Assistant City Manager Danny Gilbert said money will not be the sole consideration.

“The firing range, and the value of that to the city, will play a significant role when a decision is made,” Gilbert said.

Bailey said during a recent meeting of the Committee of the Whole that the issue of noise complaints from neighboring properties is a serious one to consider. Bailey and several council members also said they were hesitant to sell the property while the market for real estate is still recovering from the economic slump. Bailey has contacted an appraiser to get an update on the property's value, but to some extent even that will be only a general guideline to its possible market value.

"On a tract this large, I think the comps (comparable sales) are going to be outside Caldwell County. That's a concern I have," he said.