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Osage gun range expansion divides small community

The village of Osage — population 323 — is embroiled in controversy.

An influx of high school league trapshooters over the past year-and-a-half has been a boon to the Osage Sportsman's Club, but the club's efforts to expand have resulted in discord with its neighbors and legal trouble.

"It's really hard in a small town because we're all friends," said Barbara Southward, a Straight Lake resident who was among 120 local property owners that signed a petition opposing the expansion.

Neighbors are unhappy with noise levels, say the shooting range is unsafe and believe Becker County is giving it preferential treatment.

The Osage Sportsman's Club wants to increase its operations to meet growth demands and implement additional safety measures, but they are stymied by ongoing litigation, says Club Secretary Alan Kriz.

A harmonious past

Until recently, the gun range and local residents co-existed amicably since it opened in 1952.

"Over the past 50-plus years, the range has been used as a small, seasonal sighting range. It was never controversial. It wasn't intrusive," says Southward, who grew up in Osage. Her father was one of the club's original members.

Originally operated by Osage Township, a limited number of local hunters and sport shooters used the range a couple times per year, she said.

In 1996, the town board sold the shooting range — 13.5 acres of publicly held land — to the Osage Sportsman's Club for $1.

Rising popularity of trapshooting

Like many Minnesota shooting ranges, membership in the small Osage Sportsman's Club was aging and numbers were stagnant, until it received a big shot in the arm from an unexpected source: trap shooting became a high school sport in Minnesota.

Starting slowly, with three teams, three schools and 30 athletes statewide from 2001 to 2008, the sport has now grown to 268 teams at 425 schools with 8,600 athletes, according to the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League.

And Park Rapids High School is no exception. Its inaugural trapshooting team formed in spring 2015.

With no shooting range in Park Rapids, and Osage only 10 miles east, the Osage Sportsman's Club became home to the Park Rapids team, called the Clay Dusters.

Located 1.5 miles north of Highway 34, off County Road 48, there is a 100-yard rifle range and one trap-shooting house for launching clay pigeons.

To make room for three additional in-ground, cement trap houses and shooting lanes, the club logged off 1.5 acres to within 50 feet of Bog Lake, a natural environment lake connected to Straight Lake.

Becker County's zoning ordinance has a 75-foot setback for vegetation removal in a shoreline management district.

Although they got approval from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Park Rapids DNR and Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District regarding tree removal and stormwater management, club members claim they didn't know a permit was also required from the Becker County Zoning Department.

The club learned, Kriz said, that county zoning laws supercede DNR regulations on tree removal.

In September 2015, the club applied for an after-the-fact conditional use permit (CUP) to harvest the timber. The CUP also requested permission to add three additional trapshooting lanes, rearrange and expand the rifle range to 250 yards, add a parking area and eventually build a new clubhouse and warming house.

The Becker County Board approved the CUP.

In October 2015, the Osage Town Board sold five adjoining acres to the club, again for $1. The club plans to use the new property, the site of a former landfill, to redirect its rifle range from a southwesterly direction to westerly, so bullets are aimed into a natural gully that's 10 to 12 feet deep, Kriz said. "This would reflect the sound up."

The new, 300-yard trapshooting lanes also will stretch onto the additional acreage.

Thus far, two of the three new trap houses are installed. The club spent over $20,000 on them and associated machinery.

"We did it for the kids, and to help the sport grow," Kriz said. High school leagues need a certified trapshooting range for competition purposes.

Construction has halted while there's litigation.

Trapshooting was also closed this fall, the high school team temporarily practicing on private property instead.

The club wants to improve its new trapshooting area, which needs dirt work to prevent flooding, and to create a new handgun tactical training area for club members, police officers and others.

They hope to replace an office and storage area — an aging mobile home — with a new 25-by-30-foot building, plus improve its bathroom facilities and parking areas.

"We always wanted to make this a safer place," Kriz said. He is one of two National Rifle Association-certified range safety operators at the Osage site.

Noise and safety concerns

With club membership nearly quadrupling from 30 to more than 100, locals noticed the increased shooting activity and accompanying noise.

A petition, urging the Osage Township Board to discontinue their financial and political support of the gun range, began to circulate. Petitioners oppose the transfer of five acres of public land to the club and claim noise from expanded gun range operations is driving their property values down.

Joan Edmonson moved to Osage when she was three years old. In 1952, her parents bought a resort on Straight Lake that's still family-operated to this day. A year-round resident, she lives across the lake from the gun range, but she can still hear the noise.

"You can't enjoy it. People come to the area to enjoy the lake, to swim, to fish, to enjoy the peace," Edmonson said. "What's keeping Osage going is that we have a lake. It's keeping Osage alive. It's not the gun range."

She's also worried about lead shot ending up in the lake.

Tom Vikama lives north of the gun range. He's a gun owner with a permit to carry and was involved with Wolf Lake shooting range. Vikama moved to Osage about two-and-a-half years ago. He didn't have any issues with the gun range until the club's expansion resulted in increased noise levels, about a year after he moved into the neighborhood. He has had readings of 95 decibels in his yard.

But safety is Vikama's and neighbors' number one concern.

"This is literally a bunch of people standing in an open area and shooting and there's a lake and homes nearby. It's just not a safe situation," he said. "To have a gun club on a lake is ridiculous."

Lyn Hartness has lived on the west side Straight Lake for more than a decade. He, too, says he didn't have an issue with the gun range until the past two years.

"The problem is the noise due to the increased amount of shooting, and the fact that the club cut down most of the trees that served as a buffer in the past," Hartness said.

"The solution is very simple. They can sell the land. They should just relocate the club," Vikama suggests, adding there are gravel pits and less populated, open areas within five miles of the current range that would be much safer.

State appellate court decision

Brian Winczewski's home lies less than 200 yards from the trapshooting range. Before buying the existing home in 2012, he researched the gun range. Winczewski thought trees provided a buffer and were protected by zoning laws.

Winczewski joined the club, but quit in 2015 when the trees were cut.

"My mistake was thinking zoning laws would be applied equally," he said. "Removal of those trees changed my property and what I bargained for." Winczewski has measured 100 decibels in his yard when there's trapshooting and rifle shooting combined.

To appeal the CUP, Winczewski filed a lawsuit against Becker County and club, successfully arguing that the county acted in an unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious manner because it failed to make legally sufficient findings regarding noise levels, safety issues and the impact of increased use, as required by the county zoning ordinance.

In August, the State Court of Appeals reversed the county board's approval of the CUP.

Bullets leaving range

Delbert Carver, an avid hunter and gun owner, lives 2,300 feet southwest of the range.

During a family reunion in July, Carver says bullets passed through his trees for over 30 minutes during a club-sponsored event. He filed a report with the Becker County Sheriff's Office, while 25 relatives took cover in his house.

The club has since planted 400 saplings in a 25-foot band across Bog Lake's shoreline district.

"Planting spruce seedlings which will take 20 to 30 years to reach the height of the previous forest does little to abate the noise," says Carver.

Other clubs in Minnesota have 30-foot berms down range for safety purposes, according to Carver.

Winczewski said he will likely need to testify under oath about bullets crossing into his property. He, too, contacted the county sheriff during those instances.

The shooting range is flat to the tree line, Kriz asserts, saying there should be no reason for bullets to ricochet, particularly at an angle toward Winczewski's house, or leave the range. A tree line exists around the range's perimeter as well.

Trap loads travel less than 900 feet and high-powered rifle bullets can go a mile, he noted.

"The odds are you have a better chance winning the lottery. Can I say it could never happen? No, I can't say that," Kriz said, pointing out that in the club's 60-year history no one has ever been shot or hurt.

A second, revised CUP

Despite opposition from people living in the area, the county granted another after-the-fact conditional use permit (CUP) Nov. 22 for "conversion of timber land to cleared property, stumped and graded within the shoreland district."

The county received 20 letters in opposition to this most recent CUP.

Becker County Planning and Zoning Supervisor Dylan Ramstad Skoyles told the planning commission he visited the gun range twice in the past year and felt the CUP would have been approved, if requested prior to the deforestation.

Scott Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney representing Becker County in the court case, argued that the Osage Sportsman Club was grandfathered in as a "non-conforming use" and is only subject to those regulations.

He also suggested that the zoning department's assumption that a CUP was needed for the addition of shooting bays was incorrect and that the club only needed one for the conversion of forest land.

Homeowners say they are frustrated that their concerns don't appear to be taken into account by township and county officials.

Opponents of the club's expansion emphasize they don't object to guns or youth trapshooting clubs.

"This is not about the activity," said Carver. "It's about zoning ordinances and the rights of local residents."

Winczewski is confident this CUP will also be challenged.

Sale of land being contested

Winczewski filed a separate lawsuit in Becker County District Court against the Osage Town Board and the club, citing conflict of interest and procedural missteps in the township's land sale to the club.

Osage Township Supervisor Art Yliniemi, who is also an Osage Sportsman's Club member, allegedly proposed selling the land for $1 and completed the title transfer. Further, the lawsuit claims the town board approved the sale without holding a public meeting.

The state's shooting range protection act

According to Minnesota's Shooting Range Protection Act, enacted in 2005, shooting range operators are allowed to maintain their facilities provided they are operated safely, conform to sound level standards and maintain reasonable operating hours.

According to Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 87A, if one or more residences were planned, approved or built within 750 feet of the range's perimeter before Oct. 1, 2005, it's the range operator's responsibility to take steps to ensure that sound levels reaching the neighboring land are within sound standard limits. The noise level over an hour's time cannot exceed 63 decibels.

Any new residential development after Oct. 1, 2005 must install its own sound-mitigating devices.

If local zoning changes due to residential development, the law gives a shooting range time to improve its safety and sound conditions so it may continue operating.

Lake development

Lyle Bateman's family has lived in the area since its first settlers arrived, his in 1881. He taught hunter safety and education in Montana for nearly 30 years prior to moving back to Osage a few years ago.

"My experience tells me that there is absolutely no need for a 250-yard range, especially in such close proximity to so many homes and a highly used lake," Bateman said. He was an Osage Sportsman's Club member when the range first opened. Maximum range was 100 yards and he never sighted-in a rifle at more than 50 yards, he recalled.

"With all the land owned by the county, why do this within a stone's throw of a highly used and populated area?" Bateman asked.

The lake is more highly developed than it was 60 years ago, agrees Southward. Other land use activities, like duck hunting and waterskiing, have been curtailed over the years on Straight Lake and Bog Lake to protect the community, she notes.

"Times change and it often necessitates re-evaluating what is appropriate in today's circumstances. Expansion of the Osage shooting range is not appropriate," Southward said.

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