A private shooting range in Sebastopol is driving neighbors crazy. They want officials to step in

The frequent gunfire has led to viral Nextdoor posts, the involvement of multiple county departments and lawyers.|

Things have become a little less quiet lately along rural Barlow Lane in Sebastopol, a snaking concrete and gravel road lined with homes of various size and stature nestled among the trees, grape vines and orchards.

In the last couple of months, scattered gunfire has become a regular feature of neighborhood life, generating Nextdoor posts with well over a hundred comments and an escalating dispute that now involves the County Board of Supervisors, the Permit & Resource Management Department, and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

It all started in late May when one of the lane’s residents began making full use of a private shooting range he set up on his property.

“Every time he starts shooting, I basically have to run through the house and close all the doors and windows, and we just sort of go into lock down until he’s done,” Tom Danaher, who lives next door, told me.

Danaher has lived on Barlow Lane for 24 years. “I have worked full-time, mostly hourly, for over 40 years to be able to live here,” he said.

In messages I read that were sent to County Counsel Robert Pittman, neighbors expressed frustration and distress at the unpredictable, ongoing gunfire echoing through the neighborhood and beyond.

One letter included a log that described shooting on most days at varied times in afternoons and evenings, lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.

“It’s always been a quiet neighborhood, an occasional barking dog or firework on the 4th. Recently that has all changed,” a 25-year Barlow Lane resident wrote. As a Korean War vet, he explained, the random fire from guns of varying caliber magnifies his post-traumatic stress disorder.

“A sudden shot on a quiet afternoon sends me into a jump for shelter! Lifesaving moves from a violent past are subconscious.”

The heart of the issue is that, regardless of disruption caused, the man is within his rights to shoot guns on his property, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

“Our primary concern is making sure they’re shooting in a safe manner and safe direction,” Sgt. Juan Valencia told me. “We go out and investigate to see if they’re in compliance, and if they are, that’s their right to shoot on their property.”

Valencia said the shooting range is up to code and safe, angled away from any surrounding properties and toward a hillside. The resident also reportedly consulted with land use and legal experts, according to county correspondence, and he notifies the department whenever he’ll be shooting.

He’s called 50 times, according to police records. Neighbors have called with complaints 22 times.

“We’ve been receiving a lot of calls lately about gunshots in your neighborhood,” the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office posted on NextDoor. “County Code Section 19-A-5 allows shooting on private property as long as it meets safety standards, like distance from other houses … If you hear gunshots often, they’re likely coming from that property. While hearing the gunshots may be unwanted or concerning, this activity is allowed by County Code.”

“There’s nothing we can do at this point,” Valencia said.

The residents see it differently.

Skeptical neighbors have combed through county law themselves. On more than one occasion, a resident has called up and quoted code to dispatchers, and some have appealed to County Board of Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and Permit Sonoma to weigh in.

Paul Bellomo, who lives on a nearby street and dealt frequently with code enforcement as a consultant for the City of Santa Rosa, found some potentially relevant ordinances dating to 1992 on “disturbing the peace.”

“I’m the right guy or the wrong guy to be tangling with,” Bellomo said. “I will look it up.” When the shooting starts, Bellomo’s dog goes crazy, crawling under furniture. He’s worried, too, how his property value might be affected.

Others have raised questions about a right to “quiet enjoyment” found in California’s civil code.

Right now, the county has a policy framework addressing noise impact but that’s generally tied to land use requiring permits, and there is no generally applicable noise ordinance, according to Pittman’s office.

And, a staffer of Lynda Hopkins’ wrote in an email to some neighbors, “even in counties with a general noise ordinance, there remain outstanding legal questions about whether they would prevail over 2nd Amendment rights.”

Valencia maintained, too, that “disturbing the peace” doesn’t apply as it’s more often reserved for disturbances like late-night parties rather than someone shooting during the day or evening. He points to loud machinery and bright lights at night during harvest season as another noisy but legal disruption.

More recently, a group of Barlow Lane residents have zeroed in on the county’s “small arm device ordinance,” the one cited in the Sheriff’s Office’s online post. It states that shooting is only permissible 150 yards away from “any building, dwelling house, camp, or other place where human beings inhabit, assemble, frequent, or pass, excepting publicly maintained roads.”

By law enforcement’s reading, that means 150 yards from a neighboring residence, but residents argue the language is broader and should include any parts of a property in use. For instance, measuring from Danaher’s home, 154 yards away, the shooting range is compliant, but from his picnic area and the paths he uses daily, it wouldn’t be.

“They’ve taken a really hard line that the code refers to buildings,” neighbor Robert Nissenbaum told me. “There's more to the code.”

“It's an example of where land use policy and noise and nuisance and policies related to the 2nd Amendment come together,” said Leo Chyi, Hopkins’ district director.

Despite pleas for intervention, for the most part, Hopkins’ office and Permit Sonoma have told residents they must to defer to law enforcement, which has authority in this case.

“If they're not able to feel safe, or if it's triggering, or if their animals are upset, those are all serious things that impact people's lives, so I understand why people are frustrated,” Chyi said. “We've been doing our best to at minimum communicate good information to people, and if there's anything that makes sense for us to pursue further, we can keep at it.”

He told me they’ve been in touch with the property owner, who ultimately feels he’s within his rights. Chyi also raised the possibility of a mediation as the office has done in some cases, but it “feels like there's enough tension that that's not going to be easy to do right now,” he said.

Indeed, a few residents I spoke to expressed a history of what they described as hostile and intimidating interactions with the owner of the shooting range that have made communication impossible.

The owner did not want to comment on the record for this article. Because of the heated nature of gun issues and the potential for harassment, and because he is a private citizen and is not the subject of a lawsuit or criminal investigation, The Press Democrat is not naming him.

Unsatisfied with official response, some of the Barlow Lane residents decided to hire an attorney and are considering taking legal action in the hopes that a court can rule on the scope and applicability of county code language. On July 27, they also asked Hopkins for a meeting to formally discuss their grievances and possible remedies, noting “we cannot walk our paths, camp, or even sit outside, as the ongoing gunfire makes it unsafe and very distressing.”

In the end, the lengths some neighbors have gone to — researching code, repeatedly calling authorities and involving multiple agencies and legal representation — is a reflection of the genuine distress and disruption they feel.

Nissenbaum, who bought his Barlow Lane home to retire to two years ago, has put remodeling on hold.

“We're not going to build next to a county-approved, high weapons shooting range,” he told me. “We had to tell our contractor and architect, ‘we're not going to proceed until this is worked out.’”

“Who wants to live near guns going off especially with all the gun violence splashed all over TV?” said Bellomo, the retired City of Santa Rosa consultant who lives near Barlow.

“Two days after the massacre at the Texas grade school, the shooting began,” one woman wrote to County Counsel, referencing the Uvalde mass shooting on May 24 that occurred about the time the resident started using his range in late May. “I could only associate it with some kind of mayhem.”

Still, at least for now, the homeowner in question is operating within the law. He’s taken the measures dictated by authorities to shoot his guns on his property.

Ultimately, it may all have to come down to a judge’s interpretation of a single phrase in a sentence of code.

“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

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