City of Mitchell asks county board to wait on gun range decision

Sep. 19—MITCHELL — The board of adjustment of the Davison County Commission on Tuesday morning, Sept. 19, postponed a conditional use permit hearing on the proposed gun range that would be located outside Mitchell pushing any decision on the approval of the range down the road for the time being.

The board made the decision at the behest of the city of Mitchell, which requested the move at the start of the portion of the meeting where the Davison County Commission meets as the board of adjustment. The postponement was requested to continue further fact-gathering, potentially secure a larger meeting room for the hearing and to potentially hold a future public visit to the gun range in Watertown.

The vote to approve the postponement was unanimous at 5-0, with Randy Reider, Chris Nebelsick, John Claggett, Dennis Kiner and Michael Blaalid all voting yes. There was no date or timeline for any future hearing on the subject specified by Davison County commissioners at the meeting.

The reaction by the members of the public in attendance suggested disappointment, with several asking if the public would still be allowed to give input on the project before approval or rejection. Reider, chairman of the Davison County Commission, assured them that should the conditional use application return to the agenda, the public will have a chance to have their say.

"Any information you intended to bring today you can bring at a future date," Reider told the audience of about 75 people who were in attendance at the county's North Offices Building in Mitchell.

The city of Mitchell requested the conditional use permit to open a gun range that would sit on city-owned property but would be located outside city limits. Because of that, the city needs permission from the Davison County Board of Adjustment, which would need to issue a conditional use permit in order for the project to move forward.

The project itself has been met generally with enthusiasm, but not for the location. The proposed location of the gun range is on the east edge of the former Kelley property that the city of Mitchell acquired in 2019. The site abuts 406th Avenue and sits in between 250th and 249th streets near a row of residential properties in the county.

Locals expressed concerns about safety and noise associated with the range at a Davison County Planning and Zoning Board meeting on Sept. 12,

when several area residents spoke in opposition to the proposed site but showed support for building a gun range in a different spot. One in attendance at that meeting, Randy Boyd, a former owner of a gunstock manufacturing company he founded in 1981, later offered to make a $500,000 donation to the project if it were moved to a location the public found more suitable.

Residents crowded into the commission meeting chambers Tuesday morning for the conditional use hearing, but with the postponement approved by the board of adjustment, no official public input or discussion by the board took place. The board then moved on to two other agenda items to be covered by the board before returning to session as the Davison County Commission proper.

Some members of the audience expressed concern that the action was a move to pull immediate attention away from the issue, and that rescheduling the hearing could make it more difficult for members of the public to attend and share their opinion on the topic. An official trip to Watertown to tour a gun range would also be inconvenient for many to attend.

Reider reassured the audience that any future hearings would be subject to South Dakota's open meetings laws, and thus any future hearing would have to be advertised in advance. County officials also indicated they would reach out to the public via phone so that those who wish to attend and speak could spread the word prior to the meeting.

"On this issue we also have a pretty large number of people and it's not uncommon for us to give a few phone calls so you can tell your phone tree that we're going to have a meeting on the issue," Reider said. "If it comes back in a couple of weeks or a couple of months, we'll make sure it gets out there."

There is no guarantee that another hearing will even be necessary. The city of Mitchell could withdraw its current conditional use permit request entirely, which would effectively kill the project and there would be no need for further hearings. The city could also submit an entirely new conditional use permit request with different specifications. In that case, the application process would start over, but any agenda item regarding the proposed gun range that requires approval or action by the board would still be subject to open meetings laws.

Reider told the Mitchell Republic following the meeting that both the Davison County Commission and the city of Mitchell want the public to be informed so that they can bring their concerns and information before the appropriate officials. It is clear that there is high public interest in the issue, and officials want to make sure all entities, the public included, are on the same page.

County procedure requires officials to notify landowners of abutting properties when such conditional use permits are requested and hearings such as the one originally set for Tuesday are scheduled. Reider said that the county usually goes above and beyond that on such notifications, often informing landowners beyond those with abutting property.

"(We've) always been of the mindset that we let a region know, not just those abutting landowners. Anyone in, say, a one-mile radius might care, so we want them to know something is going on," Reider said. "That's the way we've always operated."

It's not uncommon for entities requesting a conditional use permit to sometimes ask for a delay in a hearing, Reider said. Approval of a conditional use permit requires a supermajority to pass, meaning it would take four affirmative votes from the five-person board of adjustment to move forward. Occasionally, an applicant for a conditional use permit will request a postponement if a member of the governing board is absent, making getting four votes in favor more difficult.

Reider declined to comment on his interest level of visiting the gun range in Watertown, but Mark Jenniges, city planner for the city of Mitchell who was present at the Tuesday meeting, said it would be a chance for board of adjustment members to experience first-hand the noise levels and layout at the site, which he said are expected to be better at the proposed Mitchell location.

The visit would be part of a fact-finding process, Jenniges said.

"We wanted the commission to experience it first-hand and see how the noise is and how it's constructed. There are some variations, so the experience will be key," Jenniges said. "Our (gun range) would be considered a fully-enclosed gun range where the baffles go all the way. That's a big difference."

Reider also told the audience any decisions made by the board would almost certainly be voted on at a meeting location in or around Mitchell, and not in Watertown, regardless if the commission officially participates in a tour with a quorum.

"I can't imagine this board wanting to make decisions out of town," Reider said.

Jenniges said he did not have a particular timeline in mind for when such a trip could take place, though he envisioned it would be a separate event from the next conditional use permit hearing that he expected could take place at the Davison County Fairgrounds. That location has ample room available for large crowds and microphones and speakers that can be arranged to improve the public participation experience.

All options remain on the table for the time being, Jenniges said, whether that be bringing this particular conditional use permit back to the commission for approval or starting over with a new plan and location. However it works out, Jenniges said the city would do what it could to help keep concerned citizens informed.

"We just want to get the facts out there for everybody and to be transparent with everybody. We're not trying to slide anything under the rug," Jenniges said. "We want to encourage people to ask questions. We're here for anybody who wants to ask questions and we'll try to answer them. We want to be transparent with everything and get the truth out there."