Bear lake community was sold out

Bear Lake, in a rural area of Port Orchard, is normally one of the quietest places in Kitsap County. On an ordinary day, the sounds you hear are bird calls, the wind in the trees, and the squeals of children playing in the water.

That is about to change. Soon, Bear Lake will probably be one of the noisiest residential neighborhoods in the county, with the sound of constant gunfire, late into the evening, just a third of a mile away. The Kitsap County commissioners, reversing an earlier position, have sacrificed the Bear Lake community to a well-heeled Pierce County gun club.

The story begins in the fall of 2001, when the gun club, facing eviction from Gig Harbor, began shopping for a new home in southern Kitsap County. Established half a century ago in what was then a rural area, the gun club had fallen victim to the spread of population in Gig Harbor. As forest gave way to residential developments, the neighborhood filled up, and soon the new neighbors were complaining about the noise from the gun club’s shooting ranges.

You can’t blame the gun club for feeling that it had been treated unfairly. After all, it was there first. No one had forced the residents of the new nearby communities to move into its vicinity. They had come there of their own free will, knowing that a noisy gun range was nearby. Searching for a new location, the gun club set its sights on a forested tract in Port Orchard, about 500 yards north of Bear Lake. Also known as Alpine Lake, this body of water is only about half a mile long, and is surrounded on three sides by houses. Some are occupied full-time; others are weekend cabins.

The land north of the lake is zoned “interim rural forest,” or IRF. The County’s Department of Community Development at first turned down the club’s application, on the basis that the County’s laws explicitly bar “private recreational facilities,” such as gun ranges, from land zoned IRF.

The homeowners around Bear Lake were not overly worried at that point. The law was clear, and the County was behind them. And they had fairness on their side. After all, they were there first.

The gun club then came up with a novel argument. A separate section of the County code allowed conditional use permits on IRF land for RV parks that are associated with private recreational facilities and public parks. Fine, said the club, we won’t build just a gun range, we’ll build a gun range and an attached RV park.

Under this interpretation, it would be easier to get a permit for a project with heavy impacts than for one with much more limited impacts. County officials who took part in drafting the law know that the County never intended so irrational a result. Rather, their intention was to bar any new private recreational facilities, while authorizing RV parks at existing recreational facilities on IRF. With better drafting, the law would have included the word “existing,” thereby removing all ambiguity.

To use an analogy, it is as though one portion of the law barred permits for commercial enterprises in a particular area, while another authorized construction of parking lots attached to commercial enterprises.

Reasonably interpreted, such a law would mean that existing businesses can construct parking lots, not that new businesses can obtain permits so long as they have parking lots attached.

The county rejected the gun club’s argument, and the club took it to court. Surprisingly, Judge Annie Laurie, in a decision handed down in May, ruled that the law was so clear in allowing combined private recreational facilities and RV parks that there was no need to analyze it. (She did not mention the fact that the law also explicitly barred private recreational facilities from IRF land.) The club, she found, was therefore entitled to apply for a permit.

Under normal circumstances, the county’s lawyers would then have appealed to a higher court, pointing out that the judge had failed to address the ambiguity in the law. They didn’t. According to a lawyer involved in the case, the ruling may still be appealed later on. But another source reports that the county commissioners, by a 2-1 majority, directed the lawyers not to pursue the lawsuit.

To nail down the gun club’s victory, and make sure that Judge Laurie’s decision becomes settled law, the Department of Community Development has proposed a change in the county code that will specifically add gun ranges to the list of uses eligible for conditional use permits on IRF land. The Planning Commission has scheduled a vote on the code change for Aug. 5. If approved by the Planning Commission, it will go before the county commissioners.

What’s going on here? Politics, pure and simple – though in this case, “pure” may not be the appropriate word. It all comes down to who sits on the Board of Commissioners.

In last November’s election, Patty Lent defeated incumbent Tim Botkin, and with that change, the balance on the Board of Commissioners shifted: from 2-1 opposed to the gun club to 2-1 in favor. (It is not lost on Bear Lake residents that Commissioner Jan Angel, who is supposed to represent South Kitsap, also let them down.) Only Commissioner Chris Endresen remains willing to put the interests of Kitsap County homeowners above those of the cash-laden Pierce County shooters.

As a result, the County and the gun club are now on the same side. The Bear Lake residents, who made the mistake of trusting the Commissioners and the County’s lawyers to uphold their legal and property rights, have good reason to feel that they have been sold out.

At a pre-application meeting in Port Orchard on July 15, the gun club’s representatives offered a preliminary look at their plans. Their rifle range will be located on the edge of the Bear Lake no-shooting zone: shooters will take positions just outside the 500-yard exclusion zone, but their targets will be within the no-shooting zone. In the club’s view, a no-shooting zone means that you are free to shoot into the zone, you just can’t shoot from it.

Cars and RV’s will approach the site by way of Alpine Drive, the narrow road that serves the 45 houses that circle the lake. Currently, the club operates seven days a week, with trap shooting – according to the club’s representative, the noisiest type of shooting – taking place until 10 o’clock at night. He was candid in explaining that because trap shooting takes place in the open air, there are limitations on the ability to curb the sound. When six or seven stands are operating at once, he said, the effect on listeners is of continuous sound.

That only describes current operations at the gun club. In an early meeting with local residents, a representative of the club explained that one reason for moving to Kitsap County was to permit an expansion of operations.

The effect of the gun club will plainly be to devastate the Bear Lake community, destroy the residents’ quiet enjoyment of their property, create safety hazards from the increased traffic flow, and shatter property values.

Would the Commissioners tolerate noisy shooting until 10 p.m. in their own neighborhoods, followed by a stream of traffic going past their doors as the shooters drive home? If not, why are they imposing it on the Bear Lake community? It’s not as though Kitsap County residents don’t have places to shoot guns: the County has four ranges already.

The issue here is not the Second Amendment; it is not a matter of being pro-gun or anti-gun. The issue is of preserving property rights against arbitrary and illegal governmental action.

If the County Commissioners can sacrifice this group of homeowners to the deep-pocketed businessmen of another county, they can sacrifice anybody. Today it is our turn to have our rights trampled; tomorrow it might be yours.

If there is a lesson in this for other Kitsap County residents in future cases, it is this: don’t rely on the County to protect your interests, look out for them yourselves. That way you won’t be left in the lurch if the County switches sides in the middle of the controversy.

The County Commissioners owe it to the Bear Lake community to come to the lake, have a look at the neighborhood as it is today, explain their positions, and answer residents’ questions. They should bring their bathing suits. The place to take a dive is in a lake, not in court.

Peter Crane is a writer and attorney. He and his family have a weekend cabin at Bear Lake.

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