Whiting residents up in arms after neighbor opens gun range

This article originally appeared in The Addison Independent on July 20, 2017.

By WILL DIGRAVIO

WHITING — Some residents of the Stickney Road neighborhood in Whiting are fed up with the sound of gunfire coming from one resident’s shooting range, which they and a town official say is being operated illegally as a business.

“There have been occasions where target shooting starts at 6:45 a.m. and other times he shoots until 8:30 p.m. The constant gunfire all day is stressful for many animals in the neighborhood. Our golden retriever Bella shakes uncontrollably and hides in the closet,” said Owen Kant, who lives at 212 Stickney Road.

“Nick Iocco should not be allowed to profit from our peace and quiet.”

Iocco, who operates the shooting range, says he is not making a profit off the friendly shooting competitions he holds, and he pointed to commendations for his safety from state officials. He claims that Vermont State Police snipers even come to practice at his property at 299 Stickney Road.

Whiting Zoning Administrator Katharine Briggs on May 3 notified Iocco that he is violating town zoning regulations:

  1.  Operation of a shooting range and a commercial business without a zoning permit.
  2.  Placing of structures, including target shooting structures, on property without permission.
  3.  Activities, including shooting, that pose a nuisance and a safety hazard to neighboring properties.

Iocco, along with the owners of a neighboring property, appealed the notice to the Whiting Zoning Board of Adjustment. This past Friday evening the ZBA presided over an appeal hearing at the Whiting Town Hall.

The other appellants included Whiting residents Michael Quesnel, Lawrence Quesnel, and the Roger and Blanche Quesnel Revocable Trust, of 243 North Main St., all of whom also received notices of violation. A portion of the shooting range in question includes a piece of the Quesnels’ property. Though they were not involved in range operations, they provided verbal and written permission for Iocco to use a portion of their land for that purpose, and thus are subject to the same violations.

At the July 14 hearing, Iocco shared his side of the story with members of the board and an audience of around two dozen that included neighbors who provided evidence of the violations. ZBA members mostly listened and asked a few clarifying questions.

OPERATIONS

Iocco said he has been shooting on his property with friends since he first bought the land in 2003. Over the years, he developed an interest in semi-automatic and bolt-action weapons, like sniper rifles, and began creating and shooting at long-range targets. According to Iocco, he could legally shoot up to 1,000 yards on his own property.

Eventually, Iocco decided that it would be safer to move 800 yards from his original location, which was near a neighbor’s house and close to the road. He approached the Quesnel family and received permission to shoot over a portion of their property.

Their agreement stipulated that Iocco would post the area with signs that read, “STOP. Rifle Range In Use. Do Not Pass.” The signs included Iocco’s cell phone number so anyone who needed to make their way through the area, like ATV operators, could call or text him to stop shooting until they passed.

Iocco decided to turn his range into a business, where he would offer lessons for new shooters and provide a venue for those with experience. He registered Green Mountain Rifle Challenge LLC with the state of Vermont, purchased liability insurance, and began promoting the range via flyers and social media. He held his first shoot in September of last year.

However, not long after he began operating the range, he received a letter from Zoning Administrator Briggs informing him that he was not allowed to run a business on his property.

According to Iocco, he stopped conducting the competitions as a business after receiving the letter. However, up through this spring, he continued to host shooting competitions that didn’t charge a fee but did ask for a donation.

Iocco said the only shooters he invites are mostly friends. He said that members of the Vermont State Police also use the range on occasion. He said that they typically use the range bimonthly to train.

“We have seven guys in the state of Vermont that are skilled snipers and that’s it,” he said. “I’m just happy to have a place where they can actually come and train.”

Two Vermont State Police officials did not respond by deadline to requests by the Independent for clarification.

Iocco argued that he is not operating a business because he no longer makes a profit and would only ask for a donations to cover costs. Iocco’s attorney, Fritz Langrock of Langrock, Sperry Wool of Middlebury, made this case to Briggs in a letter dated April 30.

“After you (Briggs) raised the issue last year, Nick no longer runs any commercial shooting competitions. He and some friends do continue to shoot every so often,” Langrock wrote. “There is no fee, only reimbursement to replace damaged targets, chains or stands. They also pitch in to carry liability insurance.”

Iocco reiterated this point at Friday’s meeting.“That’s why I say it’s not a business anymore, I’m not running it as a business, I’m not even interested in it as a business,” he said.

Whether Iocco continued to operate and advertise Green Mountain Rifle Challenge to the public as a business is a subject of contention.

“Nick Iocco informed a Whiting selectboard member in the fall of 2016 he would no longer host these events, then to our surprise on social media he is advertising for 25 shooters for a fee of $50.00 for each event,” neighbor Kant wrote in an email to the Independent, summarizing his remarks at the meeting.

“We do not have an issue with a person target shooting with their friends on their property, we have an issue with a person soliciting 25 shooters with high powered rifles to shoot on his property.”

Kant cited Facebook posts that promoted shooting events, including one that provided “tentative dates for the 2017 PRS points race season hosted by Green Mountain Rifle Challenge” on May 6, June 10, July 8, Aug. 26, Sep. 9 and Oct. 14 of this year. The posts were made in late March in the “Grandy Bow & Gun Club Precision Rifle League” Facebook group.

Iocco’s attorney wrote in an April 30 letter, “(Nicholas Iocco) does not advertise or invite the public any longer.”

However, Briggs said on Friday that whether a business is profitable or advertised as “donation only” does not matter. Many businesses, particularly small ones, she said, operate without making a profit.

“Money is fungible. If somebody is collecting money from someone in return for goods or services, that is commerce,” she said. “Anywhere where payment has to be received, even if it’s dressed up as voluntary donation, voluntary contribution, but it’s a condition to participate, that is commercial.”

STRUCTURES & NUISANCE

Regarding the alleged structures violation, Iocco and the Quesnels told the board the target shooting structures were not permanent. Iocco brought two of the targets to Friday’s meeting to demonstrate that they are completely portable and do not alter or remain on the land they occupy.

Briggs said if there are indeed no structures at the shooting range, that has a bearing on the third violation — that the range poses a nuisance and a safety hazard to neighbors.

“According to the guidelines that I’ve been given by the NRA (National Rifle Association) … all the guidelines say you can’t have a rifle range with naturally occurring topography,” she said. “You have to have structures to make it safe.”

She argued that it does not meet the NRA standards and that, if the range were truly safe, he would not have purchased liability insurance.

“If it was just friends shooting in a kind of safe way, you wouldn’t need liability insurance. Your homeowners (insurance) would cover it,” she said.

“You have liability insurance because you’re doing something else. You’re doing something that’s commercial and significantly riskier.”

In addition to safety concerns, residents and Briggs said that the shooting range produces a level of noise that is far greater than the norm for a rural area. Kant said that during some competitions, more than a thousand shoots would be fired in a day.

Iocco said he has never held a competition past 3 p.m., although he said in an email to the Independent that he “personally has shot at all hours of legal light.” As to the safety of his range, Iocco said that many experienced marksmen have complimented him on the way he runs his range. At the hearing, he read a letter from Wesley Raney, a certified firearms instructor and range safety officer in the state of Vermont.

“Besides the best practice rules in place at his property, I found Nicolas to be a wealth of knowledge and an accomplished marksman,” Raney wrote. “In my opinion, the likelihood of an accident occurring due to his home shooting range is lower than any of the dozens of established shooting ranges I have frequented as a guest, instructor or competitor.”

The ZBA delayed a vote on Iocco’s appeal until its next meeting, which will be held at the Whiting Town Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at 7:30 p.m. Board members are also scheduled a visit to Iocco’s property earlier that day.

If found in violation Iocco could be fined $200 per violation per day, and the town could pursue additional legal remedies.