Volume 7, Number 37 - December 6, 2007
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Gunfire At Black Powder Guest Ranch Threatens Use Permit
In June of 2006, the Sublette County Commissioners granted Sam Coutts and his partners in the Lost Creek, LLC, a conditional-use permit to operate Black Powder Guest Ranch (BPGR) in Bondurant. The permit specifically defined authorized uses for the ranch operations. These uses were: five cabins with a permitted 15-20 occupancy, fishing, float trips, hunting, pack trips and unguided snowmobiling.
Several neighbors of BPGR brought to the attention of the Sublette County Planning and Zoning staff issues concerning unregulated gunfire that they deemed outside of the permitted use. These individuals argued that Coutts was using the property as a shooting range, which is not allowed within the restrictions of the conditional-use permit. For this reason, Bart Meyers, planning administrator for Sublette County, brought the concerns to the commissioners on Tuesday to determine whether or not Lost Creek, LLC, should retain permission to operate under the conditional-use permit.
“The reason for this hearing is the revocation of the conditional-use permit given to Lost Creek, LLC,” Meyers said. “(Neighbors) are contending that Black Powder Guest Ranch is operating a gun range...these complaints led to my department scheduling this hearing.” Upon opening the floor to public comment, the commissioners were met with several hands taking to the air. The first to speak was Patty Engler of Bondurant. Engler read a letter written and signed by both herself and her husband against the operations taking place at BPGR.
“BPGR has been operating a rifle range/shooting club for the past two years albeit non-permitted,” she said. “The incessant gunfire makes it highly disruptive and unpleasant for the neighbors who live in close proximity to this gun club.”
“They use a variety of weapons – there are pistols, rapid-fire guns, rifles, a 50-caliber rifle and whatever else they might have,” Engler continued. “Often there has been a barrage of assorted weapons being fired behind our house, all day. The gunfire has occurred all over their property, along the river and into the forest, not limited to their firing range.”
Engler said she felt the noise was quite invasive and “conflicted with any peace and serenity we have living here.” She added that it bothered the livestock and wildlife in the area. She stated that in the 30 years she has lived on her property, this year the property hosted the least amount of wildlife.
“This is not a constitutional Second Amendment issue,” Engler said. “I doubt the owners, operators, their neighbors, friends and guests who have been enjoying this free-for-all would enjoy the constant gunfire in their own backyards.”
After Engler finished her statement, Neal Stelting, a private-practice attorney who was present as a friend of Coutts but had assured the commissioners that should the need arise he would become Coutts’ lawyer immediately, spoke to clarify that stating a “gun club” is in operation is unfounded since there are no fees or memberships required.
Also there to speak against the BPGR was Martha Preston who has property directly across US 191 from Coutts.
“Since Sam Coutts and Lost Creek, LLC, started running a business on that property in the summer of 2006, my peace has been destroyed,” Preston said. “They engage in such excessive gunfire, often shooting four to six hours a day, six or seven days a week, that it can only be described as a shooting range...
“It makes my kneecaps rattle – it is extremely loud – even inside my house. I cannot ignore it, nor get away from it anywhere on my property – It makes my life miserable. While the shooting is going on and for hours after it stops, my dogs are quivering and whining in fear and trying to hide. One afternoon this fall, a sudden loud shot startled my horse just as I was leading two of them through the gate, and they nearly ran me over.”
Preston continued to say that despite several attempts to speak with Coutts, no successful agreement was ever reached. She stated that she felt her “right to peacefully enjoy my home (is left) to the discretion of those people who continuously shoot with reckless abandon.”
“This is not a case of gun ownership or property rights,” Preston added. “It is a case of unauthorized and very disruptive business activity in a residential area. BPGR regularly and knowingly violates the terms of their conditional use permit infringing heavily on the peace and enjoyment of my life.”
With two neighbors there speaking out against the BPGR, there were just as many neighbors there to speak up in defense of the ranch. Carolyn and Roy Fiske, who also live next door to the property, claim to have not heard anything outside normal hunting operations.
“The whole thing is just nonsense...it’s just trouble between neighbors,” Carolyn said. “I live next door to them and I didn’t hear a thing.” Engler argued that Carolyn is hearing impaired and likely to have missed all the shooting.
“Everyone knows you’re hard of hearing,” Engler said.
Roy also spoke in opposition to claims that the shooting was excessive and chose to include his opinions toward the control that has been instituted over the county by the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) board and others. “The idea of the zoning board was to put organized development in the county, with which I agreed heartily,” he said. “I feel the board has gotten too powerful... we don’t need a bureaucracy telling citizens in the county what they can and can’t do.”
According to Roy, the property on which BPGR operates has always been a guest ranch and he does not see why such a permit was ever needed for the LLC to operate. He added that he certainly did not feel it was the commissioners’ position to determine whether or not it should continue to operate based on neighbors disputing authorized gunfire. “This runs afoul of my freedom of choice,” Roy said. “If it was bothering someone I suppose they could put earplugs in... I don’t like this petty crap going on with the neighbors.”
Ray added that any person could find fault with most anyone else and see different things as a disturbance, such as old cars parked in front of homes for long periods of time or animals or any such difference.
“Frankly, this is a feud,” he said. “The tempest in the teapot.”
“This is Wyoming – the great wide open... when (hunters) get here, they want to shoot,” Roy added. “Do I have to have a conditional-use permit to smoke a cigarette or shoot a bow and arrow now... it’s a restraint of trade.”
Preston spoke up again, stating that prior to sighting her guns, she always calls neighbors to let them know she will be shooting. She stated that they have never called the sheriff ’s department on her, nor does it create any problems.
Coutts, given the chance to defend himself and his business against the accusations, approached the commissioners with a map showing an area by the river where people not linked to his ranch shoot all the time.
“And I get blamed for it,” Coutts said. As for shooting on his property, Coutts readily admitted that it took place.
“Hunting takes weapons,” he said. “We do not get anywhere out of line as far as shooting goes.”
“There is a lot of other shooting going on (in that area),” he added. “We are the first forest access coming out of the valley... there are beer cans and rounds everywhere. Do I get blamed for them? Yes, they are only a couple hundred yards from my property.” Coutts added that many people hunt on the face of the hill directly in front of his property. He added that on days when Engler had recorded excessive shooting, he had no hunters on the property.
“I had a cook there,” he said. “There’s 10 days in there I can rebut, if you want me to.”
On several of the days Engler had reported excessive shooting, Coutts listed as opening days for different game opening season or for duck hunting on the property.
“It’s hunting – it’s absolutely hunting and that is permitted here,” Coutts said. “My neighbors are out of control.” “The instability of both of these women is what is going on here, they are out of control,” he added. “If this is out of line, what the hell is Wyoming all about?”
Roy agreed stating that a lot of shooting does take place at the turnout near Coutts’ property.
Engler stated that, while her documentation may show days where a lot of activity didn’t take place, she recorded it because she was recording everything. “There has been so much more shooting than Sam’s talking about,” she said. “I didn’t document it originally because I thought we could work it out. Prior to the BPGR, there was not a lot of shooting at that turnout or on that face.”
Commissioner Joel Bousman asked Coutts if he was doing recreational shooting on the property outside of what was necessary.
“I don’t have a problem with sigting,” he said. “They need to do that, to give you some confidence as an outfitter that they won’t cripple a game animal... but it appears you are doing some recreational shooting.”
“I shoot a lot,” Coutts said. “I hunt and I still do contract work with the government so it behooves me to practice.”
Coutts said he specifically bought the property because there were no deed restrictions on shooting, unlike much of the property in the area (such as Hoback Ranches).
“I think I can shoot on my own property,” Coutts said.
Commissioner John Linn questioned Coutts about the set-up he had at the BPGR for shooting.
“Unfortunately, these are neighbor problems and we’re getting shoved right in the middle of it,” Linn said. “I’m sorry we’re not like we were in the old days where you can just walk across and talk to your neighbors.”
“It seems to me there are plenty of neighbors who are plenty upset – I’m upset it couldn’t be settled before this,” Linn added.
“It should have been,” Coutts agreed.
Coutts said he had made several good-faith attempts to work with the neighbors who had complaints.
Coutts said in addition to the complaints being unfounded, there were many other disruptions in the area just as much of a nuisance as the shooting, but no one noticed it because they were accustomed to it.
“The pollution and the J-brakes on trucks...absolutely 10 times worse than the shooting (they’re) just conditioned to it,” he said.
“I’m not interested in revoking your permit,” Commission Chair Bill Cramer said. “I want any and all excessive shooting on this site that is not directly related to guest ranch activities stopped. Whatever you are contributing... I don’t think you need to be excessively shooting to sight the rifles – if you’re contributing to (the excess) you need to stop.”
“If I continue to get complaints, I’ll send a sheriff up there to monitor the situation,” Cramer added. “I don’t want to, but if that’s what it takes to get rid of this personal element...”
Linn requested that parameters be set up for shooting, such as an hour or round constraint.
“We need some give and we need some take,” Linn said.
“I don’t want to interfere with private property rights,” Bousman said. “But it’s hard to define what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary. At least at this time I am not going to participate in any motion to revoke your permit.”
Bousman then motioned that the hearing be adjourned without the conditional-use permit being revoked.
Linn again asked for parameters for the shooting.
“I want to settle this today, I don’t want to see it again,” Linn said.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Cramer said of settling the dispute at that time. “I’ll just say let’s have a clean easy motion.”
The commissioners unanimously agreed not to revoke BPGR’s permit.
“There is no quantifiable number as to what’s excessive – I’m just asking you to do your part,” Cramer said. “Laws can’t do it all, you have to be responsible for your own.”
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