County shoots down shooting areas ordinance

Norcliffe resident Jack Lyons speaks with former Island County commissioner Angie Homola following a decision by the current board of commissioners Wednesday not to move forward with no shooting rules. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Norcliffe resident Jack Lyons speaks with former Island County commissioner Angie Homola following a decision by the current board of commissioners Wednesday not to move forward with no shooting rules.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

A controversial proposal to clear the way for no-shooting rules in Island County was shot down this week.

On Wednesday, Republican Island County commissioners Kelly Emerson and Jill Johnson refused the pleas of Democrat Commissioner Helen Price Johnson to continue the discussion at a later meeting. Instead, they opted to kill the unpopular proposal once and for all.

The hot button issue, was under debate since last summer.

It again drew a large crowd this week, including a TV news crew.

While most  in attendance were critics of the proposal, a few supporters were sprinkled among the audience.

“To say we’re disappointed is an understatement,” said Jack Lyons, a resident of Norcliffe.

Norcliffe, Sea View and Tilbury residents sparked the creation of the controversial proposal last year when they signed a petition and asked the county commissioners to ban shooting in their community.

One of their neighbors has a firing range on his property, and they told the commissioners they believe it’s a safety risk.

The board declined to approve the request outright but agreed to begin drafting standards that communities would need to meet before the commissioners will consider shooting bans in their areas.

Lyons and other residents assisted in the process, volunteering hundreds of hours of their time. They examined the codes of all 39 counties in the state and said they found that 22 already have similar rules in place for densely- populated areas.

The proposal stalled late last year in the wake of a public outcry against it,  and because the plan’s primary sponsor, former Commissioner Angie Homola, was unseated by Johnson.

The issue was slated to be discussed again Wednesday but was put on the table two days ahead of schedule.

Emerson, a critic of the proposal, was running Monday’s meeting and made a surprise request to settle the issue that day.

Emerson said the intent was to not to waste any more time on a proposal supported by “only one board member.”

The county doesn’t have resources to administer the new rules, she said, adding the population base on Whidbey or Camano islands doesn’t justify their creation.

“I would be willing to table this item indefinitely until a time in which changes in the demographics of the area show more of a need for this,” Emerson said.

Helen Price Johnson, the board’s chairwoman at the time and the sole remaining supporter of the proposal, was out of town and was unable to join the meeting by telephone as planned.

Though the room was filled with property rights and Second Amendment advocates who were highly critical of the draft rules, Johnson didn’t support Emerson’s request for an early vote for reasons of public trust.

Johnson said she believes the proposal “goes too far in addressing a particular neighborhood’s concerns” and that the county already has an elected public safety officer charged with making decisions of pubic safety — Island County Sheriff Mark Brown.

Johnson made it clear that she fully intended to vote against the draft ordinance, but that she would be doing so on Wednesday, the day the public was told it would be discussed.

“I understand I have the right to do it right now, but it’s important that we are honest and predictable with the public, and we told them we’d be talking about it on Wednesday,” she said.

Waiting would allow Price Johnson the chance to weigh in, she added.

“If there was an issue that was valuable to me, I would not want to be left out of that part of the discussion … nor would I predict that you liked it, Commissioner Emerson, when it was happening to you,” Johnson said.

“The best way to lead is by example.”

Emerson responded by saying she didn’t feel it was “good management practice” to needlessly delay the issue.

Emerson later added that her request was not an attempt at subterfuge or to get something done while Price Johnson was absent.

“I have no reservations of representing my people with her being here,” Emerson said.

Both commissioners stuck to their guns Wednesday, agreeing not to move forward with the proposal for the reasons they mentioned Monday.

Price Johnson, who was again not physically present, participated in the meeting by telephone. She pleaded with her colleagues to postpone the decision to another Monday meeting, during which the public could voice its concerns.

When that didn’t work, she went on the offense, questioning Island County Sheriff Mark Brown about how he would feel if it were his children or grandchildren who lived next door to the firing range.

“Would you feel they were safe?” she asked.

Brown, who was asked to weigh in at the meeting, maintained his position that the firing range under dispute is not unsafe, nor is there statistical data of a public safety issue warranting the ordinance.

While the range is close to other homes, similar risk is taken every day by drivers when other vehicles pass them in the opposite direction and high speeds, he said.

In both cases, Brown said, disaster could occur if a driver crosses the center line or a shooter aims in the wrong direction.

Several of those who spoke against the shooting rules this week said they are relieved the issue is finally put to rest.

“There’s no reason for it,” said Mike Gallion, a Freeland resident who has a small firing range on his property.

Gallion said he believes the proposal was an affront to his First, Second and Fourth Amendment rights and. He said public safety concerns are nothing more than a smokescreen for the real issue — noise.

“This is not about safety,” Gallion said.

“It’s about sound.”

Ray Gabelein, also of Freeland, said he also had serious doubts that administration of the rules would have resulted in fair decision making.

Also, such decisions should not be made by the board, he said.

“This is simple,” Gabelein said. “If the sheriff feels the need, let him bring it forward.”

According to Lyons, noise was never the issue. This is a matter of public safety and one the community can’t afford to simply give up.

Lyons said he’s convinced the board of commissioner’s decision was “political” in nature and that residents will likely begin looking at other options, such as taking their case to the state.

“We obviously aren’t going to get anywhere with our county government,” Lyons said.


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