By CHEA WATERS EVANS
For now, the long-running legal battle between the Laberge Shooting Range on Lime Kiln Road in Charlotte and the Firing Range Neighborhood Group — a collective of anonymous neighbors who take issue with the range’s Act 250 status — has come to an end.
The Vermont Supreme Court ruled 3-2 last week that the range, owned by Laberge Bros. Inc., is not subject to Act 250 jurisdiction and therefore can continue to operate without state regulation.
The shooting range occupies about 10 acres of the Laberge’s 287-acre farm near the Charlotte-Shelburne town line. Court documents note that the range has been used since the 1950s by Laberge family members and the public.
Justices Marilyn Skoglund, Harold Eaton Jr. and Karen Carroll were in the majority; Justice Beth Robinson wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Paul Reiber. The decision came on an appeal by the Neighborhood Group after the state Environmental Court decided in February in favor of the shooting range.
The neighbors argued that, because the Laberges accept donations from people who shoot at the range, and because they had made some improvements to the property in recent years, the range should be subject to state regulation under Act 250, the state’s land-use development law.
As far back as 1994, neighbors have taken the Laberges to court over various environmental and noise-related concerns. Over the years, victories have been handed to both sides as the appeals process made its way to the state Supreme Court.
The justices in the majority wrote in their decision: “Laberge’s range, consisting of a farm field with several benches and earthen berms, is not
operating for a commercial purpose any more than a backyard corn maze or community garden space offered to the public free of charge.”
The justices further affirmed that Act 250 has a certain purpose, but that the Laberge Shooting Range’s commercial activities and land improvements over time have not altered previous court decisions saying Act 250 should not apply.
The ruling explained: “Act 250 sought to protect Vermont’s unique environmental and cultural heritage at a time when the rapid proliferation of large-scale developments was dramatically altering many landscapes and communities around the nation. The text and spirit of Act 250, consistent with our prior decisions, informs our conclusion that the Act was not intended to apply to a family dairy farm that allows the community to target practice on its fields free of charge.”
Burlington lawyer Justin Barnard, who represented the Neighborhood Group, emailed a statement on his clients’ behalf: “We are of course deeply disappointed and surprised by the Court’s 3-2 decision [Aug. 17] and agree with the dissenting opinion by Justice Robinson and Chief Justice Reiber, which we believe is much more in line with the law and the policy objectives of Act 250.”
In the dissent, Robinson said she disagreed with the majority and believed that the Laberges received important financial benefits from operating the range, even if they came from voluntary donations. “In this case, Laberge is benefitting financially from the public use of the range to the tune of nearly $20,000 per year in voluntary contributions,” she wrote.
The Laberge Brothers’ lawyer, Hans Huessy, said he was confident that the court would side with the shooting range. “The odds were in our favor,” Huessy said. “This is an area of law in which the court has taken a slight turn — Act 250 is now seen in a more narrow scope than previously accepted.”
He added that although the Neighborhood Group has more legal options, he does not see the Supreme Court’s decision being overturned in the future. Challenges to Vermont Supreme Court decisions are possible, but “rarely successful,” Heussy said.
Barnard said the Neighborhood Group will consider its legal options but is also asking the Laberge family to think of their neighbors, regardless of the court decision.
In the email statement, the group wrote: “We do hope that the Laberge family will consider placing reasonable limits on the noise impact of the Firing Range on surrounding neighbors. The Neighborhood Group will certainly engage with them respectfully, as neighbors, in any way we can to work towards that objective.”