posted on November 01, 2004 00:00
County, hunting estate at odds over planned shooting center
By the Associated Press
Published November 1, 2004
LOVINGSTON, Va. -- A dispute over a planned shotgun sports center at a 450-acre estate has prompted a legal test of Virginia's constitutional amendment that protects the rights of hunters.
The Orion Estate says that in denying a conditional-use permit for the shooting center, Nelson County is violating the constitutional right to "hunt, fish and harvest game," a protection added to the Virginia Constitution in a statewide referendum in 2000.
Earlier this year, the county's board of supervisors denied Orion's plans to build the center, where hunters would practice by shooting at clay pigeons and other moving targets meant to simulate a flushed quail or other animals. Nearby residents had raised concerns about noise and safety.
The lawsuit could provide the first court test in Virginia, and possibly the nation, of a right to hunt, said lawyer Stephen Halbrook, who represents Orion Estate.
Orion argues that the training, practice and safety education offered by a shotgun sports center is as integral to hunting as spring training is to baseball, supporters argue.
"You don't just give somebody a gun and put them out on 50 acres to hunt," said James Slaughter, general manager of Orion Estate, which plans to offer traditional hunting as well as clay pigeon shooting to a paying membership that could reach 300.
John Zunka, a lawyer representing the county, said Monday that the Board of Supervisors turned down Orion's request based on land-use concerns.
"It's important to know that the Nelson County Board of Supervisors never considered the constitutional issue of the right to hunt," Zunka said. "The Board of Supervisors dealt with land-use and zoning issues that came before it."
Bringing up the right-to-hunt issue after their other attempts were unsuccessful "is a creative approach by Orion to circumventing established land-use laws and zoning ordinances," Zunka said.
Circuit Judge Michael Gamble previously dismissed most of Orion's challenges to the board's action. Gamble will now rule on the question of whether shooting at clay pigeons is hunting, and whether constitutional issues are involved in this case.
A trial date will be set Tuesday, Zunka said.
Equating a clay target shooting range with hunting is "an interesting argument," Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, sponsor of the bill that created the amendment, told The Roanoke Times. "But it's not one that I frankly thought about when we were pushing this legislation through."
Virginia is one of 12 states that formally protect the right of residents to hunt and fish, either by statute or constitutional provision, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.