The following article by Damian Mann appeared in the Mail Tribune and the Daily Tidings on March 14, 2017.
A seven-year legal showdown between the Ashland Gun & Archery Club and three of its neighbors, including the owner of Belle Fiore Winery, ended with a whimper and not with a bang.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken dismissed the lawsuit March 5 after the city of Ashland spent more than $1 million for legal fees, environmental studies and wetland mitigation efforts, even though no lead pollution was found in wetlands on the property at 555 Emigrant Creek Road.
Neighbors Cathy DeForest, Leon Pyle and Edward Kerwin of Belle Fiore filed the suit in 2011, alleging lead contamination from ammunition, excessive noise and the risk of bullets traveling beyond the property boundary.
The gun club, which spent up to $180,000 on legal fees, has been located on the property, leased from the city of Ashland, since 1968, but the neighbors who filed the suit built homes in the early 2000s.
“You can move next to an airport and you can’t complain about the noise,” said club Treasurer Gary Peterson.
The city of Ashland was also sued along with the gun club.
Despite the legal costs, the all-volunteer club that formed in 1911 has pressed ahead with upgrading its facilities, improving shooting ranges and continuing to work on safety measures.
“We just want to get back to normal,” Peterson said.
One of the changes is a large funnel device behind targets, invented by one of its members, that captures bullets in buckets for easy retrieval.
The Ashland Police Department and other law enforcement agencies use the range for practice. On Wednesday, police from as far away as Wisconsin gathered for the National Rifle Association’s firearms instruction course on how to deal with lethal encounters.
The club routinely hosts events for both archery and guns, including the cowboy shootout that will be held this Saturday. Two years ago, the 500-plus member club changed its name because it was so popular with archers.
“The club was not going to go away,” said club President Dave Dotterrer. “They made all of these allegations, and they never found anything wrong, and none of it was cheap.”
Dotterrer applauded Ashland’s efforts to help the gun club deal with the lawsuit and to conduct environmental studies. “By 2012, after the lawsuit was filed, the City Council was well on its way to accepting that we had practiced good stewardship on this property,” he said.
In 2004, Dr. Edward Kerwin built a 19,045-square-foot mansion on 13 acres on a hill overlooking the gun club. Kerwin, an allergy and asthma specialist, built an Italian-style wine pavilion and a French-inspired chateau and is the owner and general manager of Belle Fiore. Cathy DeForest and her husband, Leon Pyle, built a 5,085-square-foot home along Emigrant Creek Road in 2007, according to Jackson County records.
In 2008, the city negotiated a renewal of the original 1968 lease of 32 acres of a city-owned 65-acre parcel next to the source of the famous Lithia Springs water that tickles the taste-buds of tourists in downtown Ashland.
The City Council at the time wanted a full environmental review of the property, particularly because of the mineral springs and Emigrant Creek. “We found that all water and wetland systems were outside of the range of the shotgun range’s shotfall zone,” said Kaylea Kathol, a city project manager, in a prepared statement.
More studies found that water and soil samples were somewhat cleaner than what naturally occur in this region, according to a report from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
While the city wrapped up its environmental study, the lawsuit was filed by the neighbors.
Out of an abundance of caution, the city decided to dig out and drain all the wetlands to look for contamination but found no lead pellets. Because the existing wetlands were considered low quality, the city built new ones to replace them.
“All told, the costs of the city’s remedial actions, the gun club’s own efforts, and the attorney fees paid by insurers to defend the lawsuit exceeded $1 million,” Kathol said. “But as public servants, it was difficult for many of us to see that so much money and public effort had to be devoted to responding to a lawsuit that we believe should have never been brought.”
Thomas Dimitre, an Ashland lawyer who represented the neighbors, said in an email response that the neighbors he represents are happy with the outcome of the lawsuit. “The neighbors believe that no clean up, no protection of the riparian zone would have occurred without the lawsuit being filed,” Dimitre wrote. “And that the city’s mitigation/work plan would not have occurred without the suit.”