City sends proposal for shooting range near school back to planning commission

The Lawrence College and Career Center, 2910 Haskell Ave.

The project to locate a shooting range and gun shop off 31st Street, near the Lawrence College and Career Center, was delayed Tuesday when the City Commission voted to send the proposal back to the city board that already voted once to deny it.

An hour-and-a-half-long conversation about the proposal included discussion about the legality and safety of the location, shooting range safety standards, other locations the owner is considering and questions about the city-owned gun range. The Lawrence school district, Lawrence Boys & Girls Club, gun owners and Rick Sells, the local businessman behind the idea, also provided input.

Commissioners Matthew Herbert and Lisa Larsen said they intended to approve the proposal. But, when Commissioner Stuart Boley and Vice Mayor Leslie Soden said they’d vote it down and Mayor Mike Amyx said he was unsure, the majority of the group decided to send it back to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.

Amyx voted against it, saying he wasn’t “real comfortable” sending it back.

The planning commission voted 4-2 in November to recommend denying the proposal. City planning staff recommended it be approved.

The door to a city-owned gun range in located in the basement of the Community Building at 115 W. 11th St. is pictured on Jan. 8, 2016.

Commissioners gave specific directions to the planning commission to conduct a comparative analysis of the 31st Street location and Sells’ backup location at The Malls, near 23rd and Louisiana streets.

Sells submitted a site plan application Tuesday for The Malls location, which would require only administrative approval from the city and would not go before the planning commission or City Commission unless an adjacent property owner appeals it. Sells would not be required to get the city’s approval because the area is already zoned to allow for a shooting range.

The site at 1021 E. 31st St. was zoned as “general industrial” and required a change to “light industrial.”

The Lawrence School Board and Lawrence Boys & Girls Club have voiced their opposition to the shooting range since the proposal went before the planning commission in November. The vacant building Sells wants to use is located about 760 feet away from the College and Career Center and the future site of the Lawrence Boys & Girls Club Teen Center.

School board Vice President Marcel Harmon said the location was a “bad idea,” and that it would create risk or the “perception of risk.”

Harmon said he would not have voted for the College and Career Center to invest at that location two years ago if he would have known a shooting range would be established nearby.

Amyx said he was “having a tough time” because he encouraged the school district to locate there because of its close proximity to the city-owned Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center.

“Boy, did I screw up,” Amyx said.

Boley said he was against the proposal because of concern it would affect the fundraising efforts of the city’s Boys & Girls Club. The organization is currently seeking donations for its teen center, which will operate an after-school program for about 300 middle and high school students.

Much of the conversation centered on a federal law, the Gun-Free School Zone Act, which prohibits any person from knowingly possessing a firearm within a 1,000 feet of a school.

Though the shooting range would be an exception to the law because it allows possession and firing of a gun on private property, the school district and some commissioners said it was important to consider.

The law would require that those using the public street outside the shooting range have their firearm locked in a container.

Soden said she would prefer Sells use The Malls location because it was more than 1,000 feet away from a school. It falls just more than 1,000 feet away from Lawrence High School’s baseball field.

“I don’t have the fear of putting it in The Malls,” Soden said. “The 1,000 feet seems important.”

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The discussion also brought up questions of legality about the city-owned shooting range located in the basement of the Community Building off 11th Street in downtown Lawrence.

Private property, such as Sells’ proposed shooting range, is exempt under the Gun Free School Zones Act, but public property, such as the Community Building, is not.

The Community Building shooting range is located between 500 and 700 feet from St. John’s School, at 1208 Kentucky St., said Katherine Simmons, a city planner.

When Herbert asked about the legality of that range under the federal law, Senior City Attorney Randy Larkin said, “That’s something we’re looking into.”

Larkin said he was not aware of the law before it was brought up in discussion about Sells’ proposed shooting range.

The existence of the city-owned range on public property was listed by Herbert as one reason he supported Sells’ proposal.

Herbert, a teacher at Lawrence High School, did not seek an abstention from the vote, even with the school district’s input, because “it’s my responsibility,” he said.

“Every part of me wants to reject this because I teach at Lawrence High School… kids’ safety is my No. 1 priority every single day,” Herbert said. “But I have a real big problem with us as a governing body telling Mr. Sells he can’t do something that literally our city government does. We operate a shooting range less than 700 feet away from a school. We have people bring guns into a public building with a big ‘no guns’ sign on the door.”

Herbert also said he thought The Malls was a less-safe location for a shooting range than Sells’ preferred location on the south edge of the city.

Larsen said she’d support the proposal because, among other reasons, Sells said he would offer gun safety classes.

“With this obsession we have with guns these days, the thing sorely lacking is education, training and having respect for guns,” Larsen said. “This is a business that would offer that.”

In other business, commissioners:

• Unanimously approved a Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department policy that bans tobacco use in all department-owned and operated land, including all parks, sports complexes, bleachers, cemeteries, Eagle Bend Golf Course and other recreational areas. The ban includes all “smoking-delivery devices,” including electronic cigarettes. The vote comes one day after Eudora became the first Douglas County city to extend the state indoor smoking ban in public-access buildings to include e-cigarettes and forbid their use along with traditional tobacco products in city recreational facilities and parks.

• Proclaimed the week of Jan. 17 as “Martin Luther King, Jr. Week” in Lawrence. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday marking his birthday, is Jan. 18.

• Proclaimed January as “Lawrence Transit Month” to recognize the efforts of Lawrence Transit System.

• Unanimously approved an agreement for $95,295 with UtiliWorks, a utilities consulting firm, to assess the city’s current water meter-reading system and recommend how it could improve. The agreement is the beginning of the utilities department’s efforts to modernize how it reads meters and increase the data that it collects.

• Unanimously approved permits and waivers for two Lawrence events: the 2016 Art Tougeau Parade and Final Friday event and the Lawrence Busker Fest. The Art Tougeau Parade and Final Friday event is planned for noon May 27 to 2 p.m. May 28, and the Lawrence Busker Fest will run from May 27 through May 29.

• Unanimously approved designating the following sites as landmarks on the Lawrence Register of Historic Places: Chi Omega House, 1345 West Campus Road; Fuller House, 1005 Sunset Drive; Zimmerman House and Zimmerman Carriage House, 304 and 302 Indiana streets; and Beal House, 1624 Indiana St.