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North Country Sportsman's Club v. Town of Williston

Supreme Court of Vermont

June 2, 2017

North Country Sportsman's Club
Town of Williston

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Civil Division Robert A. Mello, J.

          Hans G. Huessy of Murphy Sullivan Kronk, Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Paul S. Gillies of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Robinson, J., and Cohen, Carroll and Hayes, Supr. JJ., Specially Assigned

          ROBINSON, J.

         ¶ 1. This appeal tests the limits of a town's authority to enforce a noise ordinance against a sport shooting range's historically established operations. Plaintiff North Country Sportsman's Club challenges citations issued by defendant Town of Williston to the Club for allegedly violating the Town's noise ordinance. The Club seeks a declaration that under state law as well as its own ordinance the Town lacks authority to enforce its noise ordinance against the Club for engaging in sport shooting that is consistent with its historical usage. It asks that we reverse the lower court's summary judgment declaration to the contrary. We agree with the Club and reverse in part and affirm in part.

         ¶ 2. The relevant facts were not disputed in the parties' summary judgment briefing. The Club is a nonprofit corporation that has operated a skeet shooting range in Williston for approximately fifty years. There has been no recent increase in the Club's historical hours of operation or the amount or quality of noise historically generated at the range.

         ¶ 3. The Town adopted a Noise Control Ordinance in 2004, barring excessive or unreasonably loud noise that disturbs the peace of the neighbors. Section 4 of the Ordinance states:

No person or persons shall make, cause to be made, assist in making or continue any excessive, unnecessary, unreasonably loud noise or disturbance, which disturbs, destroys, or endangers the comfort, health, peace, or safety of others within the immediate vicinity of the noise or disturbance.

         That section also lists specific kinds of prohibited disturbances. Section 5 includes decibel limits for noise created on non-residential properties, along with permitted time frames for such noise. Section 6.13 of the Ordinance includes the following exemption from the prohibitions of the ordinance:

The use of firearms . . . when used for sport shooting consistent with any permitting conditions placed on such use. For sport shooting uses permitted prior to January 1, 2005, the hours of operation will be determined through a written agreement with the Town.

         In May 2007, the parties entered into an agreement identifying the Club's hours of operation. This agreement contained a one-year term that automatically renewed absent written notice from one of the parties. In their agreement, the parties established that the hours of operation for the shooting range would be Wednesdays from 4:00 p.m. to dusk, Sundays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Saturdays for special events only. The agreement did not define what constituted a "special event" or place limits on the number of such events, but it limited the Saturday special event exemption to the hours of 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and required the Club to give the town at least forty-eight hours' notice of a special event.

         ¶ 4. In 2014, the Town wrote the Club asking to renegotiate the agreement to specifically define the term "special events" and limit them to five or six events per year. The Town acknowledged that this limitation would result in a reduction of such events from a historical average of twelve per year and suggested that, if the Club declined the proposed changes, it might attempt to limit special events to one or two per year. The Club responded that it would not agree to any terms that restricted or had the potential to restrict shooting activities to levels below historical operating levels. It subsequently proposed a new agreement that would have substantially increased the Club's hours of operations. On April 7, 2015, the Club notified the Town of its intent to terminate the parties' agreement on May 1, 2015 if the parties failed to reach a resolution. The parties did not successfully negotiate a new agreement and their longstanding agreement terminated on May 1, 2015.

         ¶ 5. On May 6 and again on May 10, the Town cited the Club for violating the Ordinance. The Town claimed that absent an agreement, the Club's shooting range no longer qualified for an exemption under Section 6.13 of the Ordinance and thus violated Section 4 of the Ordinance, which prohibits excessive, unnecessary, or unreasonably loud noise. The Club had not changed the operating hours of the shooting range after the parties terminated the agreement, and the times of the alleged violations were consistent with the ...

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