Jennifer Schwartz Berky: Shooting Range Testimony to Planning Board (Zoning, Code, Comp Plan and Environmental Justice)

As an Ulster County legislator-elect for Kingston, NY, a parent in the Kingston schools, a professional urban planner, and a resident, I wish to add my comments voicing concern over the proposed shooting range at 90 Prince Street.

I have heard from many parents and neighbors who are very worried about the location of a shooting range in Midtown Kingston and believe it is my duty to help articulate specific reasons – in addition to those already given by others – that such a use is inappropriate for Kingston’s densely populated urban center.

I am not opposed to the appropriate location for a well-designed indoor range such as the 30,000 sf one that was approved in by the  Saugerties planning board last year.

Specifically, there are reasons associated with Kingston’s zoning ordinance, our new, about-to- be-adopted comprehensive plan, and the larger issue of environmental justice.

Zoning

Beginning with zoning, I believe we need to re-examine our zoning to determine what aspects of it are “permissive” or “prohibitory.” The wording has found a mix of interpretations in New York case law, depending on the construction of the ordinance. The language of our zoning is a mixture of both. In this C-3 commercial district where the shooting range is proposed, the wording “may be used” (rather than “shall”) is permissive but more strictly says “for any of the following purposes and for no other.” The purpose of zoning, as is usual, is “the protection and promotion of the public health, safety, and welfare.” However, even more pertinent, Kingston City administrative law 223-3 (http://ecode360.com/12699923), specifically prohibits the discharge of firearms: “No person, other than in self-defense or in the discharge of official duties, shall willfully discharge any species of firearm within the city limits of the City of Kingston, New York.” In other words, the shooting range is currently against the City's law.  The Common Council would have to change that law, and in my opinion, raise a higher threshhold of public safety concern by attempting to do so.  I respectfully request that this be referred to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and the City's Corporation Counsel for their further evaluation. Without such clarity of interpretation, the city and its taxpayers are left exposed to litigation.

Referral to the ZBA may be necessary, anyway. On Friday, we learned that the application is being amended, as the shooting range will be a “membership” organization. In our zoning, as detailed in section 405-10 B.(6) membership organizations are subject to a special permit and “shall” not be located nearer than 50 feet to any street or property line. An area variance would be required to allow this, but in New York State, “self-created” difficulties are not grounds for an area variance (https://www.dos.ny.gov/lg/publications/Zoning_Board_of_Appeals.pdf, pp. 16-19). The property owner is not compelled to turn this location into a shooting range, and – as it is proposed – it is not eligible for a special permit with an area variance under our zoning.

There are other reasons that we should be very careful in our consideration of this application. You have heard about the rates of suicide on the rise at shooting ranges, the lack of background checks for rentals, and our very clear city law regarding the discharge of firearms. About 300 feet from the YMCA and 1000 feet from our largest school, this use is not compatible with the safety and welfare of these neighbors.

Implementing Our Comprehensive Plan as Law

Our vision for the city as stated in our soon-to-be adopted comprehensive plan and environmental justice.

Kingston 2025 appropriately envisions “a new core” in Midtown Kingston where the creative economy can take root and businesses can grow. It furthermore looks to become a more mixed-use center “with multi-family residential incorporated with ground floor retail; pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets; active use of sidewalks; traditional architecture and historic identity.” “These nodes will be connected not only by a network of streets supporting slow-speed/high-capacity vehicular travel, but by u network of on-road and off-road bicycle paths, and by public transit ranging from shuttle bus to trolley." Prince Street and the intersecting network of streets are at the heart of this district.

The law may state that until adopted, this plan’s intent is not law. However, comprehensive plans must be implemented with zoning that follows the plan by law.  Because a special permit must be renewed periodically, and must consider whether a use is “in harmony” and conforms with the “orderly development” of a district.  As the research shows, indoor shooting ranges in populated areas have a very detrimental effect on property values. (See Pat Courtney's testimony: "all you have to do is google 'shooting range' and 'property values'.") This is hardly in harmony with the vision for midtown and its economic development as envisioned in our comprehensive plan. It would certainly not conform to the new zoning that will be developed. It might be a mistake – if the other approvals were obtained (and I don’t believe that New York State law supports an area variance under these circumstances) – to mislead the applicant for a short-term investment if the future of midtown is not compatible with this shooting range. It would be unfair to all those who have invested in properties with the belief that the comprehensive plan’s vision will be implemented.

Finally, I must add just a few words about environmental justice, which is now an important aspect of State and Federal land use legal review and funding. Anyone who visits Kingston for even a short time can see where our investments have gone. For a long time, uptown Kingston benefitted from its status as the historic, established part of town. Following the tragedy of urban renewal’s demolition of an entire neighborhood, we began to understand the value of what remained downtown, and the investments followed. Midtown, has suffered from various forms of economic disinvestment by the public and private sector – a history that has played out across America.

“Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The Midtown community deserves as fair an interpretation of our laws and respect for the welfare of its residents as any other part of town.

Please take great care in your interpretation of the zoning, your understanding of the legislative intent of our comprehensive plan, which aspires to help this community’s quality of life.

Jennifer Schwartz Berky
Legislator-Elect, Ulster County District 7
Planning & Policy Advisor, KingstonCitizens.org

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