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Weare zoning board raises concerns, but delays decision on garage gun shop

The Weare zoning board decided last night to postpone a vote regarding a resident’s garage-based gun shop and backyard range, which one neighbor has alleged is in violation of local zoning code and several others have described as a danger and a nuisance.

Though the board expressed some concerns about the business, members said they needed more time to review new letters submitted last night as new evidence and to meet with the town’s attorney about an issue raised by the shop owner’s attorney, Tony Soltani.

At issue is whether the shop, which is owned and operated by Michael Stevens out of his residential garage on Thorndike Road, is a legitimate “home-based” business, as defined by the town’s zoning code.

Last night several neighbors testified that, whether or not the business is legal, they feel threatened by what they characterized as the routine shooting that has resulted from the operation.

“At times, it’s hours and hours of very high-caliber guns, to the point where having a conversation is difficult,” said neighbor Nancy Stehno, adding that she has reported the disturbance to the police on at least two occasions.

Another neighbor, Laura Kobylis, urged the board to “put yourself in my shoes.”

“I have two young children,” she said. “This sort of thing doesn’t belong in a residential area where people are trying to bring up their families. It belongs in a commercial area. It’s frustrating and it’s got to stop.

Stevens’s neighbor Alan Provost filed an administrative appeal last fall with the board contending that the shop is not an appropriate venture for a residentially zoned area, and that it never should have received approval from the town land-use officer, Chip Meany.

Stevens, a retired U.S. Marine, has countered that he possesses all of the paperwork to legally operate the shop, which was originally used for automotive repair before morphing into its present iteration sometime between 2006 and 2009, according to town documents.

Meany submitted a letter to the town in 2009 acknowledging that Stevens was compliant with its zoning ordinance for a “home-based business.” Such a business is “any legal use which is carried on entirely within a dwelling and occupying no more than 25 percent or 500 square feet, whichever is less, of the individual’s primary dwelling,” according to the ordinance. It lists five examples: “lawyer, doctor, realtor, accountant or notary.”

Provost’s attorney, Olivier Sakellarios, claims Stevens’s business does not meet those qualifications because part of it takes place outdoors, on a backyard shooting range, and because it does not fit the discrete profile of a home-based business as implied by the code.

Last night Sakellarios described a gun shop as the polar opposite to the ventures outlined in the code. “I think it’s common sense how they vary,” he told the board. “You can’t kill somebody with a notary stamp; you can with a firearm.”

But Soltani argued last night that it was “elitist” to allow some home-based businesses but not one that sells guns.

“It’s an elitist view just to say because it has to do with weapons,” he said. “It’s completely capricious.”

Soltani also argued that the board did not have legal jurisdiction to close Stevens down because it had been years since the town first approved the venture. He cited a legal stipulation that few on the board indicated they had heard of called “municipal estoppel.”

“You cannot go back on your word, even if it was wrong,” Soltani said, referencing the rule.

But it’s not clear whether that rule would apply in this case since the board has not presented any record of having voted to approve or deny the business at any time in the past.

Sakellarios also submitted a written correspondence, which the board had not seen before last night’s meeting, that suggests Provost filed a complaint to the town against Stevens’s automotive business in 2005, and that at that time Stevens stated that the business was not commercial, but rather a “hobby” venture.

Meany said last night that his predecessor had approved the automotive venture, and that he had approved the new business because he considered it grandfathered in.

Sakellarios contested that reasoning, saying recently that “you can’t grandfather in new businesses.”

Board member June Purington said last night that she had “a real problem with this idea of this being grandfathered.”

Forrest Esenwine, another board member, said he had no problem if the business was just a small gunsmithing operation run completely inside Stevens’s home.

“However, once you go into sales of firearms – retail traffic – you’re now going beyond the original setup,” he said, noting traffic concerns primarily. “It definitely becomes commercial.”

Another problem Sakellarios raised in a letter last November is that Stevens has personal ties to Meany, a fellow retired Marine. Meany, who acknowledges the conflict of interest, has since recused himself from the case, though he spoke before the board last night.

Stevens also has a connection to the Weare Police Department, whose weapons he has serviced in the past. Even the zoning board chairman, Jack Dearborn, said last night that he has paid Stevens before to work on his guns; he said he did not think it would affect his decision on the dispute.

Provost’s complaint also alleges that Stevens’s firing range is in violation of state law because it is within 300 feet of neighboring homes.

The board indicated last night that it had no authority on that complaint, but rather would only consider whether the business violated their interpretation of an appropriate home-based business.

A final vote on Provost’s appeal is expected at the next zoning meeting, April 2.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or
jblackman@cmonitor.com.)

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