Bay County commissioners are aiming to open a new public gun range at their Steelfield Road property, despite the objections of some nearby residents.
At Tuesday's board meeting, commissioners voted to spend up to $200,000 in park impact fees to construct the range and have the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which manages eight other ranges in the state, oversee operations. According to a FWC spokesman, the agency will contribute a portion of firearms excise tax revenue it receives from the federal government and the National Rifle Association will chip in $25,000 toward construction.
More than 40 citizens signed a petition to stop the project. Some took their opposition a step further and addressed the commission in person.
"I think the issue here is that we're trying to couple a gun range with a neighborhood," Jim Wheatley, who lives in the nearby Seminole Ridge subdivision, said. "Our vision was sidewalks and parks, not a gun range."
Crystal Ford, who lives in the Pine Log area, said she's concerned that her children won't be safe when they play in her yard and with noise associated with the range. "I personally don't want to hear gunshots constantly throughout the weekend," Ford said.
Both Wheatley and Ford urged the commission to delay the project for further study and input from citizens who live near the site. "It needs to have very distinct issues addressed and we haven't seen that," Wheatley said.
Commissioners said more than a half dozen sites were considered and Steelfield was the best option. George Warthen, the FWC's coordinator of hunter safety and gun ranges, endorsed the plan.
"One of the first things we look at when looking at a range site is addressing concerns of citizens nearby, making sure that it's a safe area," Warthen said. "That's why we chose Steelfield because we felt we can meet the noise ordinance as well as the safety zone with our direction of fire."
Commissioner Guy Tunnell, who has championed the gun range, said the impact has been thoroughly studied. "I think we've taken every precaution that we possibly can take in developing this range," Tunnel said. "I think it's going to be a win-win for everybody."
Chairman George Gainer agreed. "Bay County has a responsibility to promote gun safety, so this is going to be well supervised... it will be a really, really good thing," he said.
After the meeting, Ford said she was unhappy that the board approved the project. "The way they handled it, without getting more public input, was ridiculous," Ford said. "No one has sat on my porch and listened to a high powered rifle shot from the site."
The county plans to open the new range in time for the fall hunting season.
In other business, Commissioner Mike Thomas addressed wetlands violations committed by Eastern Shipbuilding's Brian D'Isernia and the companies he controls.
Last month, D'Isernia agreed to pay $2.25 million in fines for violations at Eastern Shipbuilding's property in Allanton. D'Isernia admitted he knowingly violated federal law by dredging an upland cut boat basin and the channel connecting it to East Bay.
Thomas said the money paid to the federal government should be spent in local waters. "If there was any damage done, it was done in Bay County [and] I think that money should be spent here where the fines were collected," Thomas said. "That's not what the feds are trying to do right now... they're leaving it open to two or three counties and I hope we can kind of focus things back on Bay County."
Commissioners agreed to ask Congressman Steve Southerland (R-Florida) to approach federal authorities and try to influence how the fine money is spent.