The Back Story on the Efforts to Acquire the Thompson Tract

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Reprinted from the August 22, 2014, issue of the WW-P News Archives

What’s Next for the Thompson Property?
by Sue Roy

Though West Windsor Township will not be purchasing the 35-acre Thompson tract, land adjacent to West Windsor gun club (known officially as the Citizens’ Rifle & Revolver Club, or CRRC), the property may still become preserved open space. Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh has been working with conservation and environmental groups to see if they will be able to purchase the property.

“Nothing is confirmed yet,” said Hsueh, “but I am hopeful that something can be worked out, so that even if the township cannot purchase the property, it can still be preserved as open space rather than becoming a housing development. The Thompson company has been very willing to work with us on this, and they have stated that they are willing to wait for a while to see if something can be arranged.”

Currently the Thompson tract is slated for development of 16 single-family homes. Thompson’s contract with a developer for the property expires soon, but an extension is possible.

The township’s plan to acquire the Thompson tract fell through last month after the administration and gun club failed to reach a compromise to address safety concerns the gun club had raised.

An ordinance authorizing the acquisition of the tract was scheduled for introduction at the July 14 Council meeting, but Council President Bryan Maher refused to introduce it, citing safety concerns.

The issue at hand was that members of the gun club, represented by long-time member Marshall Lerner, had raised safety concerns about having open space accessible to the public, so near to the gun club property. Maher asked township staff to work with gun club representatives to work out a compromise that would allow for the purchase of the property while still addressing the safety issues.

Explained Lerner: “We [the gun club] have been around for 75 years, and we have never had a safety issue ever occur, and we want to keep it that way.”

“Time is of the essence here,” Maher said, “because we have obtained a significant amount of county open space money [$50,000] and funds from FOWWOS [Friends of West Windsor Open Space] to use towards the purchase of the property, so I am directing the administration to burn the midnight oil and work out compromise language. But, if we cannot reach a compromise, that is ok, too. We have many properties on our list that the township is interested in buying, so if we cannot purchase the Thompson tract, we will look into purchasing another piece of land.”

The gun club wanted two conditions added to the proposed ordinance: that an eight-foot fence with safety signage be constructed on the 1,144-foot border shared by the two properties; and that no passive or active use of the open space be permitted.

Negotiations between township attorney Mike Herbert and the gun club’s attorney, Jeffrey L. Shanaberger of Hill Wallack, who is also a member of the club, failed to result in a compromise on these issues. Lerner contacted Hsueh and advised him that the deal was off.

Said Herbert, “Jeffrey and I had been in negotiations to address everyone’s concerns. He said he would speak to the gun club and get back to me with language, but I never heard back from him. Then I was informed that Marshall Lerner had contacted the administration and said ‘the deal is dead.’”

On July 19 Hsueh issued a press release indicating that in light of the safety concerns, he agreed with Maher that the township would not acquire the Thompson tract. Hsueh later stated that approximately 2/3 of the tract’s 35-plus acres would still be preserved open space because of wetlands on the property. And he reiterated that the township would aggressively seek to purchase other open space.

Questions remain, however. If it is unsafe for the township to turn the Thompson property into open space, then would it be safe for an environmental or conservation group to? If the property is developed into single-family homes, then won’t the same safety issues arise? Is the property safe now?

At the July 28 Council meeting, Lerner explained, “right now, there are only a few hunters who use the Thompson property, so we are not concerned. But if it becomes open space, and groups of children start using the property, that increases our safety concerns.”

Maher also addressed the increased safety issue in a phone interview. “If the property is developed into single-family homes, they will be set back far enough from the gun club property that there shouldn’t be an increased safety risk. However, the township is proposing to fundamentally change the use of the space adjacent to the gun club. That is the problem.”

Hsueh said, “The purpose of acquiring open space is so that it can be utilized by residents. I could not, in good conscience, approve language that would restrict its uses.”

Moreover, Alison Miller of FOWWOS noted that under county open space law, public access must be permitted, though a town does not have to facilitate it. Theoretically, then, while the township might be able to restrict active uses if it so chooses, it might be problematic for the township to restrict access completely.

Regarding the fence, the township offered to sell a few acres of the Thompson land to the gun club so that they could erect the safety fence and signage. The gun club declined the offer and asked the township to build the fence, at taxpayer expense, as a condition of the purchase of the property. Open space funds could not be utilized for this purpose, explained Miller.

Said Hsueh:“The gun club is responsible for ensuring the safety of its facility. I did not want to use taxpayer dollars to pay for fencing, and also I did not want to potentially take over responsibility of the safety issues, which might open up the township to additional liability.”

According to the municipal code, Chapter 86-4, which lists required safety protocols, the gun club is responsible for ensuring the safety of its indoor and outdoor firing ranges.

Specifically, the relevant portion of the code requires the club to maintain fencing that is at least four-feet high, with least one sign every 100 feet reading “WARNING FIREARMS DISCHARGE AREA DANGER DO NOT ENTER.” The signs must be durable, at least 12 by 12 inches, and readable from at least 50 feet away by someone with 20/20 vision.

Municipal code further states that the signage and fencing must be approved by the Division of Engineering prior to installation.

In an e-mail, CCRC secretary Jim Nicoletti explained: “We currently have an orange safety fence along the property line. It’s four feet high and has the required warning signs posted. I’ve never measured the distance between signs, so I can’t be certain, but my impression after walking the fence is that we have them closer than every 100 feet.”

Added Lerner: “The township set the specifications and approved its installation. The club always endeavors to operate in accordance with all applicable ordinances.”

Representatives of the gun club declined to comment further for this article.

According to Maher, it is reasonable to need additional safety protocols. “Those safety rules were enacted in 1994, when the area surrounding the gun club was different than it is today. There were no housing developments nearby, and no public open space. Those safety rules might have been sufficient back then, but now the township, not the gun club, is seeking to radically alter the surrounding property, so I think it is reasonable for the township to pay for additional safety measures.”

The 1994 rules were enacted in response to a specific incident — the one potential blemish on the gun club’s very strong safety record. That year a bullet lodged into a home located near the club.

Says West Windsor police Lieutenant Robert Garofalo: “I remember an incident in the early 1990s when a single bullet hit the home of a resident living in close proximity to the gun club. The bullet went through a resident’s bedroom, then the bathroom, and then lodged in the siding. Luckily, no one was hurt. The police investigated, reviewed the bullet’s trajectory, and could not determine whether the bullet came from the gun club.”

Residents went ballistic. An organization known as “Bulletproof Our Children” was formed, with the purpose of forcing the gun club to leave West Windsor. At least one council member, Rae Roeder, supported that position. One resident even sought to buy the gun club’s registered name and take possession of the property in an effort to have them removed, though this action was struck down in court. Townspeople on both sides of the issue staged protests, and representatives from the National Rifle Association (NRA) came to West Windsor in an effort to convince the gun club to adopt the NRA’s recommended gun club safety standards and procedures.

Two then-council members — Alison Miller and Shing-Fu Hsueh — felt that efforts to get rid of the gun club were too extreme, and they negotiated language for a safety ordinance as well as operating hours for the gun club.

The gun club agreed in principle with the safety standards but felt that the proposed hours of operation were too draconian, and filed a lawsuit against the town. The parties negotiated the hours, and a compromise was reached, amending Chapter 86-4 of the municipal code to its current form.

While the club was compliant with code in 1994, however, one of its requirements is a tri-annual safety review to be conducted by the NRA. A review of township engineering records shows that while NRA reports have regularly been filed since 1996, the most recent one on file is dated April 2, 2010 — more than four years ago.

Regardless, we now know that the Thompson property will either become preserved open space, accessible to the public, or the site of 16 individual homes. In either case, the gun club should expect the site’s future owner to seek a resolution to these same safety issues.

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