Outdoor advocates say proposed shooting range will be too close to Cumberland Trail

Outdoor advocates say proposed shooting range will be too close to Cumberland Trail

February 13th, 2016 by David Cobb in Local Regional News

Justin Whaley walks away from the planning notice sign proposing a special permit outdoor shooting range on Bakewell Mountain in north Hamilton County. The 184-acres are located on Retro Hughes Road.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

POLL: Is the proposed firing range too close to the Cumberland Trail?

Justin Whaley, left, and his business partner Wade Batson are proposing a state-of-the-art firing range on Bakewell Mountain in north Hamilton County. "We are going to build a clubhouse with pro shop and make it like a park," Whaley said. "We'll have an outdoor pavilion for people to gather, like a family atmosphere," he said.

Justin Whaley, left, and his business partner Wade...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Document: Proposed shooting range

See a map of the proposed shooting range complex within the 184-acre area in proximity to the Cumberland Trail.

A battle is brewing in Hamilton County's Wild West.

Geographically, it's in the hills northwest of Soddy-Daisy close to the Bakewell community. Philosophically, it strikes at Chattanooga's outdoor identity — a location near a developing state park that some think could become a little brother to the Appalachian Trail.

Justin Whaley and his company, Dead Zero Shooting, are proposing a state-of-the-art shooting range complex on 184 acres along Retro Hughes Road. Whaley plans to buy the land, pending approval of a permit to operate a firing range there.

"We want to have a good, high-quality place that's family-friendly, family oriented and safe, where people can come and shoot," Whaley said.

The location is controversial, however, because the Possum Creek Gorge section of the Cumberland Trail is less than a mile away, and because area land owners are opposed to a firing range moving in.

The Hamilton County Commission will have the final say, but Whaley will make his case to the Regional Planning Agency on March 14. When he does, there likely will be outspoken opposition in the room.

Cumberland Trail State Park manager Bobby Fulcher said the state park system is still gathering information about the firing range proposal. But trail advocates started organizing in opposition as soon as word began to spread early this week.

Nearby homeowners and those planning to build are raising concerns about noise, lead contamination and illegal hunting they fear a firing range could bring.

"I'm building a house out there, and all the neighbors I've talked to are opposed to it," David Taylor Jr. said. "I'm into guns, so it would be convenient. But my biggest concern is that ranges aren't regulated in terms of lead disposal."

Taylor's father is also building a home adjacent to the proposed firing range. The Taylors anticipate their homes relying on well water, which is why they're concerned about lead from spent bullets seeping into area creeks.

Several other people who identified themselves as area landowners reached out to the Times Free Press to express similar concerns.

Whaley said, as an outdoorsman himself, he understands why people are skeptical. He anticipated concerns and has quick responses to the noise and lead fears.

He said the range will adhere to the federal Environmental Protection Agency's best management practices for managing lead and the firing lines will be covered, reducing noise to less than that generated by a passing car.

"We are a ways from the Cumberland Trail," Whaley said. "We're not up against it. And I'm a big outdoors person, always in the outdoors while I was growing up. We're definitely wanting to make this to have as little impact as possible."

He came up with the idea when he couldn't find anywhere near Chattanooga to practice long-range service rifle competition shooting. And he says his facility will add to the area's abundant recreation opportunities.

His plans include firing lanes for everything from short-range pistol practice to long-range rifle shooting up to 600 yards. The long-range component would feature new electronic technology that shows shooters the accuracy of their shots and allows them to customize the placement of targets.

That technology alone costs $300,000, Whaley said. He did not disclose a total budget for the project, but it would include plenty of construction work.

"We're going to have a full pro shop and clubhouse," he said. "We're also going to have an outdoor pavilion and a kitchen seated away from everything. That way if groups and families want to have a range day, we can accommodate them."

He's eyeing a clay shooting component further down the line.

Whaley, a service-disabled Marine veteran who served in the Iraq War, has lived in Chattanooga for eight years. He became interested in competition shooting through a Missouri-based group called Camp Valor Outdoors that works with disabled veterans.

He said he wants to provide free use to disabled veterans, adding he hopes to provide free shooting to local Boy Scouts.

At its closest point, the Cumberland Trail is 1,200 yards away from the proposed range, Whaley said. That 0.68 miles of separation includes heavy woods, sloping terrain and Retro Hughes Road.

The Cumberland Trail will eventually be 300-plus miles long, connecting Chattanooga to the Kentucky border. It's coming together piece by piece now and is a part of the Great Eastern Trail network consisting of more than 1,500 miles of completed trails.

"Over the years, the participation and the number of people through-hiking on the Cumberland Trail is going to keep growing," said Randy Whorton, director of the local nonprofit group Wild Trails. "And I don't know if it's in the community's best interest to build a firing range next to it."

In a Facebook post, Wild Trails encouraged its followers to attend the March 14 planning agency meeting.

"Please join us there to show our disapproval," the post said. "There are plenty of great options for shooting ranges away from our nature trails."

There may not be, though.

Representatives from the city, county and local law enforcement agencies who are serving on the Moccasin Bend firing range committee are realizing that potential locations for new outdoor firing ranges are scarce.

The committee is in the early stages of planning a new firing range to fulfill a 2003 agreement to move police out of an aging range on Moccasin Bend so the land can be given to the National Park Service.

Residents' concerns over Whaley's proposed range validate the difficulties the committee is facing.

"I believe you could come in here and build a garbage dump more easily than you could build a firing range in a suitable location in this county," Hamilton County Chief Deputy Alan Branum said in one of the committee's recent meetings.

Still, Whaley is confident.

"Chattanooga is one of the biggest outdoor meccas in the United States," he said. "Chattanooga needs a good shooting complex where you can be able to shoot the longer-range distances in all the shooting disciplines.

"We've got everything else outdoors. Why not this?"

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.