The Town Council discussed balancing the rights of all Londonderry recreationists following a June 15 presentation of recommendations for addressing the issue of target shooting in the Musquash conservation area.
Musquash Task Force Chairman Bill Hart, the Town’s police chief, presented the Committee’s nine recommendations, which range from an outright ban of target shooting, to limiting target shooting until a specific location is identified where it could be pursued.
Town Council Chairman John Farrell said he doesn’t think the Council “is in the business of building and managing a fire range.
“If that’s something we want to think about, it’s something that would need to go to the ballot,” he said. “We could move it there by citizen’s petition and ask for the funding to do something, but anything being done on town land would have to be approved by the Council, and funding would have to go the voters.”
Additionally, if the Council is to pass an ordinance related to banning or restricting target shooting in the Musquash, Farrell said he would like to see more information from the Task Force detailing exactly what would be required of the Town to enforce the ordinance.
The Council voted 5-0 to continue the discussion to their July meeting, at which they plan to consider costs required to enforce a number of proposed restrictions on target shooting in the Musquash, including limiting target shooting to duck and turkey hunting seasons, and to those who have a valid hunting license issued by New Hampshire Fish and Game.
Additionally, the Task Force recommended expanding from 300 feet to 600 feet the safe distance target shooters are required to maintain from occupied dwellings and other patrons of the conservation area, as well as implementing a check-in procedure at the Police Station for any target shooters visiting the Musquash or other town-owned conservation properties.
The Council also considered adding as a restriction that use of the Musquash for target shooting be limited to residents of Londonderry.
“I have been an advocate for getting and managing a firing range to confine the activity to a safe space, but I realize that would be really expensive,” Councilor Tom Dolan said. “But I think the recommendation from (Task Force member Dan Watson) limiting target shooting to hunting season and licensed hunters could solve over 95 percent of the problem. And with the additional piece limiting it to residents only, I think about 95 and 99 percent of the problem goes away.”
Town Attorney Mike Ramsdell said it’s his opinion the Town would be within its legal rights to limit target shooting on town-owned properties to residents of Londonderry.
State Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry expressed concern with severely limiting or banning target shooting in the Musquash, saying the problem will only migrate to state-owned properties in town.
“This will force whoever is in the Musquash over to Little Cohas Brook, and overload the Cohas area,” he said, adding he is concerned they are “trying to fix something that’s not broken” and that the Town should focus on educating target shooters.
Conservation Commissioner Mike Considine said the Commission has worked extensively to educate shooters, but problems persist.
“Everyone will tell you they’re shooting in a safe manner, but they’re shooting trees, they’re shooting across trails and they’re shooting up and down trails,” he said.
Hart said while the facts show no one so far has been injured, firearms are inherently dangerous and the evidence also tells the Town that if the activity Considine described happens with regularity, at some point there will be an incident.
Hart said although the Police Department has generally informed residents that target shooters in the Musquash are within their legal rights when concerns were reported, the issue of target shooting has become a concern to the community and he encourages all residents to report any unlawful activities in the Musquash to police.
“We will put out a directive tomorrow and begin to list and categorize those reports so we can unequivocally bring forward their concerns,” he said.
Hart noted police are only able to enforce ordinances when activity in the contrary is observed and there is strong probable cause – in other words, police cannot issue a summons for shooting that was too close to a residence without strong evidence proving a suspect was the shooter and witnesses testifying the suspect perpetrated the offense.
Several neighbors of the Musquash said at the Council meeting, as well as at previous meetings of the Task Force that they no longer call the police to report concerns because there aren’t any regulations for police to enforce.
Additionally, several residents said they enjoyed recreating in the Musquash in the past, but that over the last three years, target shooting in the conservation area has become such a safety concern that they no longer visit the trails.
“I used to go out into the Musquash until three years ago. I stopped because I deemed it to be unsafe after six to eight rounds crashed into a tree directly over my head. I did not report it to the police, because some of us don’t have a cell phone. I could have gone to the police a couple hours later, but by then, there was very little anyone could have done about it,” Dave Ellis of 1 Wilshire Drive said.
“We developed the Musquash for residents’ enjoyment and recreation. But if a small segment of individuals are recreating in a way that is causing other groups to no longer feel safe in that environment, we have the rights of one group against the rights of another group. That’s the tough question we’ll have to face in the future,” Dolan said. “How do we regulate the rights of all recreators, so not one segment of those recreators are causing the rest to walk away from that resource?”
Dolan added he believes the issue of residents being chased out of the Musquash by out-of-town and out-of-state visitors can be resolved with what the subcommittee recommended.
“I want to remind everyone who’s here, the citizens of Londonderry have been working over 35 years to create the Musquash and make the Musquash what it is now,” Conservation Commissioner Deb Lievens said. “It breaks my heart to think citizens can’t feel comfortable to go out and use this fabulous resource we have.”
The Council will continue to consider the recommendations of the task force, as well as concerns of the shooting community, neighbors of the Musquash and other patrons of the conservation area at their July 20 meeting.