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Garage-based gun shop in Weare stirs fierce neighbor dispute

Last modified: 3/1/2013 12:21:32 PM
For the past several years, Michael Stevens, a retired U.S. Marine, has been selling, repairing and training others to use firearms out of the small two-car garage attached to his home on Thorndike Road in Weare.

His shop, Classic Armorer, is no public secret: it has a fully functioning website with testimonials and information about current sales; in the past, fliers have been posted around town advertising the business; and the Weare Police Department uses Stevens’s services on occasion. Stevens, who longtime patrons call “Gunny,” said last week that he possesses all the necessary paperwork to operate his shop well within the law.

But Al Provost, who has lived next door for nearly two decades, filed a formal complaint last fall with the town’s zoning board, contending that Stevens is in violation of state and local ordinances. He also requested that the operation shut down immediately and that Stevens cease firing weapons in his backyard shooting range.

“The shooting is a tremendous nuisance,” Provost’s lawyer, Olivier Sakellarios, said Friday. Provost’s family is “affected by the noise. It’s tremendously disturbing to have guns firing next to your house.”

The zoning board is scheduled to take up the matter next month. It is tasked with deciding if Stevens’s business meets the qualifications for a “home-based” business. According to the town’s zoning ordinance, such a business includes “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.” It lists as examples occupations such as “lawyer, doctor, realtor, accountant, or notary.”

Provost argues that Classic Armorer does not meet those qualifications because part of the business takes place outdoors, on the shooting range. (Stevens said he stopped using the range for commercial purposes three years ago.)

Moreover, Sakellarios noted, a gun shop does not fit the nature of a home-based business, as implied in the law.

“Mr. Stevens can’t run a business of this nature out of his house,” Sakellarios said. “He’s got people with guns coming to his house. There are cars parking in the road. It’s not an appropriate home-based business. When you talk about a home-based business you’re talking about a tax preparer or lawyer – things that are discreet. When you have signs that read ‘Got ammo?’ next to your business, that’s not discreet.”

The other contention Provost and Sakellarios have made is that Stevens cannot fire a weapon on his range because of a state law restricting guns being discharged in any “contiguous area containing six or more” homes in which the space “between each is within 300 feet of at least one of the others.”

Weare police Chief Gregory Begin said Stevens checked himself and told him the range meets the 300-foot rule, but he said he doesn’t have any documentation of that. Begin said he tried to measure the distance recently but was unable to because of inclement conditions. He said he plans to try again when the weather improves.

Unclear history

The history of Stevens’s garage business is somewhat murky. Chip Meany, the town’s code enforcement agent, said when he came on board around 2004 Stevens was using the garage as an auto repair shop. Meany said a predecessor had approved that use, but he indicated that the same approval would probably not come if put before the zoning board today. In 2009, he submitted a letter to the town indicating the business, which the town says morphed into a gun shop sometime between 2006 and 2009, was compliant with local zoning laws. He said Friday that he approved the gun shop because he considered it “grandfathered in.”

Sakellarios said that approval was baseless because “you can’t grandfather in new businesses.”

Complicating matters, Meany also has a self-acknowledged conflict of interest in the dispute; he said he is an old friend of Stevens. After filing the complaint, Sakellarios requested that Meany recuse himself from the case. Town Administrator Naomi Bolton is now managing the matter for the town.

Why Provost waited to file a complaint until last year is not clear. Sakellarios said the business only evolved into what it is now – a full-scale commercial enterprise – fairly recently.

Stevens, who has hired attorney Tony Soltani to represent him, said it all had to do with a complaint he made against Provost for shooting off fireworks at a party roughly eight months ago. “They were big ones, they weren’t no sparklers,” Stevens said, adding that his primary concern was that a spark could hit and ignite flammable material in the gun shop. He described Provost’s current campaign as a personal vendetta.

Provost, who deferred nearly every other question to his lawyer, wrote in an email Friday that that claim is “absolutely false!”

Stevens also indicated that Provost and his children have used the shooting range in the past. Sakellarios said there may have been “one (time) more than 15 years ago that Mr. Provost fired with him.”

The shooting range, which Stevens said has been around for 17 years, originated as “just a pile of logs,” according to Sakellarios. It has since been augmented with a backstop and various targets.

As far as complaints go, Stevens said no one other than Provost has ever taken issue with the shop, and both Meany and Begin said they were unaware of any complaints before Provost’s.

Sakellarios said Provost has complained in the past but nothing was ever done. He and his family, Sakellarios said, “have been suffering all along.”

“You don’t want to wage a legal battle against your neighbor,” he said. “It’s just not something you want to do.”

Both he and Provost said they expect the dispute to end up in court. The zoning board will take up the issue at 7:30 p.m. on March 5.

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


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