SEABROOK — Selectmen voted Monday to form a committee to develop a financially independent way to reopen the town’s firing range in a manner that is safe for the public and the environment.
The roughly 50-year old firing range off Route 107 has been closed for months following a February incident when a bullet, believed fired from the range, allegedly hit the window of a Kensington business on Amesbury Road.
The range itself, in the aquifer protection zone of Seabrook’s well fields, is in Kensington on land owned by Seabrook, and for which Seabrook pays taxes. After the incident was reported to Kensington police last February, Kensington selectmen issued a cease-and-desist order on the range pending an investigation.
At Seabrook’s Jan. 6 selectmen meeting, Kensington Police Chief Scott Sanders explained the results of the investigation he undertook with Seabrook police. At the time, Seabrook Lt. Jason Allen and Lt. Kevin Gelineau accompanied Sanders and a N.H. Fish and Game officer to the range. Sanders said they found evidence the rogue bullet came from the firing range, although some in town doubt it.
Sanders said a cache of bullet casings found at the range indicate the bullets were not fired from the proper position that aims bullets toward the firing range’s berms. Sanders said the bullet casings show a firing position that sent bullets in a trajectory to hit the Kensington structure.
“(Those involved with the incident) were shooting in a reckless manner,” Sanders said. “They were not shooting in the direction of the berm and in a way that is not characteristic of what usually happens at the range.”
After the meeting, Sanders said he’s identified two “persons of interest” in the case, one of whom is a convicted felon from Massachusetts who was visiting a resident of Seabrook at the time.
“We believe that individual was arrested in Massachusetts shortly after the incident,” Sanders said. “We don’t know the charge.”
Founded in the 1960s after the town purchased the land as part of its well fields, the town’s firing range is run by local volunteers. It is for Seabrook residents only, most of whom use the range for the firearms training or practice for hunting.
Officials said a lack of local volunteers led to volunteers from out of town getting involved. It is believed this caused a breakdown in compliance with the range’s regulations and record keeping.
At the selectmen’s request, the Seabrook Police Department investigated the situation, responding with a report outlining the problems and corrective options the town can take to make it safer. The report highlighted environmental issues concerning the possibility that lead bullets left in the soil could eventually leach into the groundwater of the aquifer that feeds Seabrook’s and Kensington’s wells.
According to Seabrook Town Manager Bill Manzi, although there is no evidence of lead in the water presently, it is a possibility. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has guidelines Seabrook should follow to prevent contamination, he said.
According to the report, there is about $50,000 in capital expenses needed to bring the range up to par. To establish and enforce appropriate safety standards at the range, there is also money needed annually to cover operating costs. According to the report, the Exeter Sportsman’s Club, for example, has an annual budget of about $60,000.
The police report, as well as a letter from Seabrook Conservation Commission Chairwoman Susan Foote, proposed establishing a membership-based format for use of the range. It would establish a shooting club and charge an annual fee for members. No amount was discussed, however, the Newton Shooting Club has a fee of about $195 a year, considered reasonable, according to a member present at the meeting.
Long-time firing range supervisor Jim Sanborn, estimated approximately 1,200 individuals use the range annually.
Selectmen hope the range can be reopened by spring, based on the committee’s work. The goal is to enhance public, user and environmental safety and to finance it without taxpayer dollars. The committee has 90 days to develop a plan.
Until then, the range remains closed, even to those, like Seabrook resident Michael Pike and others, who’ve used the range responsibly for decades.
“I’ve hunted for 45 years,” Pike told selectmen. “Part of safety is bringing your kids to the range and teaching them to shoot safely.”