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Land has been cleared for construction of a Catoosa County Sheriff's Office firing range in Ringgold, Ga. Neighbors, some of whom live as close as 500 feet from the new range, are concerned about the sound of gunfire and its effects on their property values.
 

RINGGOLD, Ga. -- Eric Geissinger was jogging in his neighborhood about three months ago when he ran across bulldozers sweeping away a bundle of pine trees. He was surprised.

A construction worker told Geissinger the crew was clearing land for a firing range that Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk wanted. A public entity, building on public land, where public workers will train.

"It's the first I heard about it," Geissinger said last week.

Turns out, many other residents of Ridgeway Estates didn't know about it either. Nobody from the county told them that the sheriff wanted to build a 200-yard-long firing range behind some of their homes in western Ringgold, though county officials say they have discussed the project with Sisk for about a year.

Some members of the neighborhood are angry: They don't want to hear frequent gunfire near their homes and believe gunfire will drive down property values.

And they are angry because, they say, government officials have ignored the most basic part of democratic governing: giving their constituents a voice in matters that will affect their day-to-day lives.

Geissinger moved into the neighborhood about a year ago, around the time county officials began discussing the project. A retired chemist, Geissinger liked the area because it's quiet.

"We had no idea they were going to put a firing range or anything like that out here," he said. "If we had known, we would have thought seriously about buying this house. We may not have bought it at all."

Keith Greene, chairman of the Catoosa County Commission, said some of the neighbors' concerns are unfounded.

He also pointed out that the firing range is not like most government projects. The sheriff's office is paying for it with private donations and civil asset forfeitures, the controversial policing program in which officers may seize citizens' money and property if they say it is somehow connected to a crime.

Even so, Greene said, a county employee should have told Geissinger and his neighbors about the firing range months before Geissinger stumbled on the news.

"I'm not aware of the communications with the local area with that community," Greene said. "That's something that should have been taken care of, as far as letting them know."

Why a firing range?

Right now, Catoosa County officers have two places to practice shooting: The Whitfield County Sheriff's Office's firing range and the Volunteer Training Site in Tunnel Hill, Ga.

The Whitfield County location has two ranges: 50 yards for handgun training and 100 yards for rifle. It also has an obstacle course.

Lt. Philip Herren, who operates the Whitfield County site, said several local law enforcement officers train at the range, including FBI agents. Officers can use the range for free, just by calling ahead to block out which days they want to come.

The range in Tunnel Hill offers similar features.

Sisk did not return multiple calls last week seeking comment for this article. But Greene said the sheriff told him a year ago why his department needs its own range: it's closer, so they can train more often, and they won't have to schedule appointments.

Greene was not sure how much the range will cost. But Walker County, which is building its own firing range, has set aside $30,000 for its project.

The sound of shooting

Like some of her neighbors, Carol Mason is worried about hearing the sound of gunfire echo through her property.

"Am I going to hear that all night long?" she asked herself last week. "Are my dogs going to be barking all night long because of that? It's kind of disturbing."

Geissinger expressed similar concerns. He said he doesn't want to listen to officers training while he works in his garden.

Greene believes the sound will not be an issue, though. He said a wooded area between the future range and the homes will buffer the sound of gunfire.

However, he isn't sure about the exact impact.

"I would have to talk to the engineering team about sound studies," he said.

Lack of communication

Dewayne Hill, an outgoing Catoosa County commissioner who represents the district, said he didn't know about the project until six weeks ago, when a resident named Vaughn Crane asked about it during a commission meeting.

Crane's back door is about 500 feet from the planned location of the firing range, closer than anyone else's. He said County Manager Mike Helton called him in August to tell him about the project.

Crane, a former law enforcement officer, said he told Helton he was worried, and Helton promised a meeting with Sisk. Then, Crane said, he didn't hear anything until Geissinger told him construction workers were clearing trees.

Hill, whose last day in office is Dec. 31, isn't sure why he didn't know about the firing range. But he isn't surprised.

He doesn't think the sheriff has to tell him anything about the project since no taxpayer money is being used. And he doesn't think county commissioners should vote on the range's location, even though it is going on county land.

Hill said he doesn't have an opinion on the range because, he said, he doesn't "have all the facts," and, anyway, he's leaving office.

"Having the open mic there at our meetings gives the people an opportunity to speak," he said. "We have heard from a few. Their voices have been heard, but we haven't heard from a majority by no means."

Ray Johnson, Hill's replacement, also didn't know about the range until Crane spoke during a commission meeting. But he said he would have been in the loop if he had been in office at the time.

"If Dewayne didn't know anything," Johnson said, "that's his fault. That's one of the reasons I ran. I felt like the people weren't being represented."

Stanley Houston, who lives in the neighborhood, considered the issue of representation last week.

"It's almost like they have eminent domain and don't have to answer to anybody," he said. "And legally, they may not."

"You can be legally right and you can be right every other way," said Crane, sitting in Houston's living room, "but you can still be morally wrong and ethically wrong. And I think it's ethically wrong regardless of whether they're in their legal rights."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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