Amid Concerns About Gunfire and Growth, Colchester Reviews Its Firearm Restrictions
Patty Davis has given up early-morning jogging in Colchester — her home for more than 40 years — because she worries it’ll put her in the line of hunters’ fire. “I get the feeling ... that the deer, and the right to hunt on your property, are more important than the lives of people who are trying to use our paths and woods and trails,” 52-year-old Davis told the Colchester Selectboard at its September 24 meeting.
“Why do we have to wait until there’s a tragedy?” asked Davis, who insisted during her public testimony that she is neither antigun nor antihunting. “Why do we have to wait until I’m out in the middle of the road, laying flat on my back?”
The selectboard waited one month to vote to consider new restrictions on where it’s legal to discharge firearms within town limits. Board members said the move was prompted by patterns of “significant development” in some areas of town over the last 20 years, as well as recent complaints about guns and public safety such as the one Davis lodged the month prior.
At its biweekly meeting on Oct. 22, the selectboard passed a resolution calling for a “committee of concerned citizens and hunters” to “reevaluate the town’s restricted shooting areas based on the level of development that has occurred.” Though the committee’s size and membership has yet to be determined, the selectboard asked a Colchester police officer and a planning and zoning staffer to serve on the advisory panel.
Town manager Dawn Francis said the selectboard has also asked the planning and zoning department to compile data on where the “build out” of subdivisions has occurred in Colchester since 1991, which is the last time the town’s firearms ordinance was updated.
The 1991 ordinance currently restricts the discharge of guns in most areas around Malletts Bay and along the Winooski River, Severance and Kellogg roads, and in the eastern section of town that includes St. Michael’s College and Fort Ethan Allen. Shooting, hunting and trapping are also prohibited in the Winooski Valley Park District, which includes Colchester Pond, Delta Park, Macrae Farm and Ethan Allen Homestead.
It’s still legal to hunt waterfowl in season on the waters of Malletts Bay and Lake Champlain.
“Obviously, we’re very respectful of the hunting tradition in Vermont,” Francis said. “But at the same time, the level of development activity that has occurred in Colchester does necessitate another look at the restricted shooting areas.”
State fish and wildlife officials say the trend occurring in Colchester reflects what’s happening in other parts of Vermont, especially in Chittenden County and northern Addison County. Significant population growth in the last decade, combined with the construction of new roads, subdivisions and strip malls, has resulted in increased habitat fragmentation and fewer wild animals.
Meanwhile, more property owners, especially second homeowners who live out of state, are posting their acreage with the yellow signs that indicate it’s off limits to hunting and trapping. As a result, wildlife officials say some regions of the state are seeing population booms of some species, such as whitetail deer and moose; other areas have very little wildlife left, because they’ve been killed off or migrated to safer spots.
The result, says Vermont Fish & Wildlife commissioner Patrick Berry, is an overall decline in the number of Vermonters buying hunting licenses. A portion of those fees funds the purchase and preservation of open space (see sidebar).
Colchester is technically still a “town,” but according to U.S. Census figures it’s now the fourth largest municipality in the state, with a population that rose from 14,700 people in 1990 to nearly 17,000 in 2010.
That growth has occurred unevenly. Some parts of town, such as the area north of Severance Corners and along Route 2, are still wooded, rural and zoned in large lots. Other spots, especially the land along Malletts Bay Avenue abutting Winooski, which has the highest population density in the state, have had significant development.
Davis lives near the Winooski city limit. In her testimony before the selectboard, she claimed that other residents of Valley Field Commons, a neighborhood that overlooks the Winooski River, have expressed similar concerns about the proximity of gunfire to their homes. Most, she told the board, are afraid to air those grievances publicly for fear of retaliation from hunters and other gun owners.
Seven Days found three other Colchester residents with views similar to Davis’, but none was willing to be interviewed for this story. Davis, too, declined to add any comments to her selectboard testimony documented by Lake Champlain Access Television.
Just how serious is the risk of an accidental shooting in Colchester? Town manager Francis said her office has received fewer than a “half dozen” complaints in recent years about sportsmen hunting too close for comfort.
Likewise, Colchester’s new police chief, Jen Morrison, said this is “not a law enforcement issue; this is a zoning issue.” She noted that her department has investigated the very few noise complaints it’s received related to hunting or shots fired. None was found to be a violation of the law.
Nevertheless, selectboard members acknowledged the importance of averting a tragedy similar to the one that occurred in neighboring Essex several years ago. In September 2008, a stray bullet from a nearby target-shooting party struck and killed St. Michael’s College professor John Reiss while he was inside his home on Old Stage Road. Two men were subsequently charged and convicted for the professor’s death.
“We just don’t need anything like that happening in Colchester,” noted selectboard chair Nadine Scibek. Although Scibek didn’t go so far as to identify hunting as a major safety issue for Colchester, she noted that she doesn’t go out hiking in the woods at all during rifle season. “It’s just not worth the risk for me or my kids.”
Robby Mazza, a Colchester resident who owns All Season Excavating & Landscaping on Malletts Bay Road, says the recent dustup about new shooting restrictions in town is much ado about nothing.
“Once it starts rolling, everybody jumps on the bandwagon,” said Mazza, who owns 206 acres in Colchester and also serves as treasurer of the statewide sportsmen’s group Hunters, Anglers and Trappers Association of Vermont. “I happen to know it’s just one lady who’s starting all this trouble.”
Mazza, a nephew of state senator Dick Mazza, said he’s seen a steady erosion of hunter access over the last 20 years — including along Pine Island Road, where Davis used to run and where Mazza hunted ducks and geese as a boy. The Vermont Land Trust owns some of the land, which is posted, he noted.
Mazza’s group tried unsuccessfully to reverse that trend. In February 2003, Hunters, Anglers and Trappers sued the Winooski Valley Park District after it imposed a ban on the discharge of firearms within all district parks. The sportsmen argued that the rule was a de facto prohibition on hunting, which is illegal under both state law and the Vermont constitution.
But in November 2006, the Vermont Supreme Court disagreed and upheld a lower court’s decision that municipalities do have the authority to regulate hunting and trapping on land they own and lease.
Despite that loss, Mazza said that what Colchester is trying to do now is not very different from recent efforts by the Burlington City Council to restrict gun owners’ Second Amendment rights.
“As this gets a little closer, we will show up in force,” Mazza said. “And if legal action is necessary, we’ll do that, too. I’m not very political, but I don’t intend to be stepped upon.”
Interestingly, the town of Essex formed a citizens’ task force to review its own ordinances after the accidental shooting death of Reiss. According to police chief Brad LaRose, the town eventually decided against any new restrictions on the discharge of firearms in the area where Reiss lived. Because state law already addresses “reckless disregard” for safety, LaRose explained, “What sense would it make to enact more laws?”
Whatever new restrictions Colchester adopts, if any, will not affect hunters gearing up for rifle season, which starts on November 16. Last week town manager Francis said that because of the time it takes to “warn” newly proposed ordinances, the citizens’ advisory committee won’t meet until the new year — after the current hunting season is over.