Elder Mountain residents seek to silence gunfire with $1.25 million lawsuit

photo Elder Mountain is seen from Interstate 24.
photo Site of shooting range in the Elder Mountain area.

Gunfire crackled through Lookout Valley, the sharp reports bouncing up Elder Mountain as the sound waves echoed through schools, neighborhoods and churches surrounding the 86-acre Firemen and Policemen Outing Club.

"That's nothing," said Laurel Krishock, standing beside her Elder Mountain home. "The machine-gun fire is the most disconcerting."

A video filmed from her porch of one particularly noisy shooting session was provided to reporters. It sounds much like the full-scale firefights depicted on TV or in movies. But despite frequent complaints from Krishock and others to law enforcement, the gunshots have continued unabated, she said.

If she's right, the very people sworn to uphold the law could be the ones breaking it, she and others contend.

"I call the police every day," she said. "I'm either brushed off or they tell me to take it to my congressman."

Some residents believe the lack of action in stopping what one homeowner termed "the Fourth of July, every day," can be traced to the fact that the club is operated by and for police officers and firefighters, with a board staffed entirely of Chattanooga Police Department or Chattanooga Fire Department officers.

The roughly 350 firefighters and police officers who are members can choose to have their club dues withdrawn directly from their city paycheck, though the club is not an official city organization. The club also allows another 100 associate members who are not active-duty or retired first responders to use the facility.

To stop the noise, a group of residents pulled the trigger on a lawsuit for $1.25 million in damages in Hamilton County's Chancery Court in mid-March, pleading that the club's shooting range, which is located just 10 minutes from downtown Chattanooga, be closed.

"Efforts were made to solve it, but basically the neighbors got no practical cooperation," said Stephen Duggins, an attorney for the group. "They basically felt they had reached a dead end, despite a number of attempts to work with the range."

Duggins says that the Pan Gap site, which is located in an R-1 residential area, is an illegal range and a nuisance, according to the city's zoning laws, and damages the value of the surrounding property.

"Some of the plaintiffs have communicated with club representatives to express their concerns about the shooting range and to explain the problems created by the shooting range, but the club has continued to operate the shooting range and has not done anything to reduce the harm being caused to the plaintiffs," he wrote in the lawsuit.

But the operators of the property say this is the first serious complaint they've fielded, and contend that they've taken steps to reduce the noise, including banning shooting after business hours and limiting the club's membership. The group maintains that it has the right to shoot on the property and isn't violating zoning laws, though it may voluntarily shut down the shooting range portion of the club to be a better neighbor, said Tim Zink, treasurer of the club.

"We haven't heard anything from anybody," Zink said. "There is no ordinance against shooting in an R-1. The law says that if the shooting is a nuisance, basically you can call the police and they can come tell you to quit. We're not doing anything illegal."

The Firemen and Policemen Outing Club, founded in 1905, includes a lake and campground among its amenities and isn't designed as a shooting range, Zink said. But he acknowledged that the volume of gunfire, including loud caliber rounds that sound like cannons to some residents, increased after members built a shooting pavilion on one side of the property.

"We admit that the intensity has increased, and we're going to address that," he said. "We're sorry about this, and we're not happy that they felt they couldn't come to us. We've talked about planting trees, building sound barriers, but we have limited funds."

Far from intending to aggravate the neighborhood, the shooting pavilion was built three years ago to consolidate shooting on the site away from nearby homes, he said. As proof of the club's good intentions, Zink said the club had rejected a bid from the city of Chattanooga to locate its official range on 35 acres of the site.

"We said we will not do that to our neighbors," he said.

Zink expected that a board meeting scheduled for Monday evening would include a vote on whether to disallow shooting on the site completely, including the erection of a "no shooting" sign, though he hopes to reach a long-term compromise with neighbors.

Even if the plaintiffs get their wish that the club's gun range privileges are shot down, that won't completely stop the noise in the area, he said. Zink stopped by the club on Thursday, and said that gunfire heard by a reporter at 6:30 p.m. -- which would have violated the club's 10 a.m to 5 p.m. rule -- must have come from somewhere else.

"People shoot all over the place," Zink said.

While some of the area's new neighbors may be up in arms about the shooting, a handful of long-term residents reached by reporters say that gunshots, four-wheelers and other such sounds simply come with the territory in Lookout Valley, a fast-growing area that has seen other legal battles between new and existing residents.

"I don't know anybody who has ever complained about it," said Bobby Keller, who lives less than a mile from the range. "It ain't too bad."

This month's shooting spat mirrors a dispute over four-wheelers on Aetna Mountain, in which residents and developers at the new Black Creek Mountain neighborhood said four-wheeling enthusiasts were damaging property and destroying the environment. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency ultimately ruled in favor of residents, ruling that four-wheeling on the public land was illegal.

Zink doesn't want the lawsuit to shut down the entire Firemen and Policemen Outing Club, currently the only land available to the group.

"I hope we can settle this peacefully," he said. "We don't like to be the ones causing problems, we like to be the ones solving problems."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.