LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Plans for a proposed clay shooting club at Lakewood Ranch have drawn concerns from Center Montessori School and Bayside Community Church.
The proposed Ancient Oak Gun Club would be built on 78 acres currently zoned for agricultural use, three-quarters of a mile south of State Road 64 East, as previously reported by the Herald.
The Montessori and church properties are to the west of the proposed club, where 25 shooting stations are planned. At each station, shooters would use shotguns to try to hit clay targets. Tentative opening date is this spring, Rex Jensen, CEO and president of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, has said.
Montessori uses its property for an outdoor nature laboratory.
The gun club is less than 4,000 feet from the nature lab, said Jamie Zinkhan, one of the Montessori parents who have expressed concerns.
"We don't want the children to be exposed to even distant popping noises," Zinkhan said. "We hope they can find another space. We feel that there is plenty of land out there.
"My husband and I are gun owners," Zinkhan said. "We are not trying to make a political statement on gun rights."
But Wayne Evans, who has been selected by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch to manage the proposed gun club, said Ancient Oak would be located far enough from anything else that "there is absolutely no safety issue whatsoever."
"The people were opposed to the gun range because they believed they would hear shots from that range. It was all about the noise and the gunshots that they might be able to hear," Evans said.
Evans, who has built and managed other gun clubs, said he is well aware of how far noise and shots can travel, and that plans were carefully reviewed for safety.
Janice Shelton, another Montessori parent concerned about any gun activity in the vicinity, said she is even more so after the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December that claimed 27 lives at an elementary school.
"The reality is that the school had purchased that property for children to enjoy agriculture and nature. The gun club would ruin the whole purpose for having that property," Shelton said. "Once you have a special permit, that opens the door for other types of weapons. That also sets a precedent for others."
Preston Whaley, also a Montessori parent, said he has communicated his concerns to Manatee County commissioners.
"I feel that it is no place for a gun range," Whaley said. "They also said in that hearing that the sound of the shotguns would not carry a half mile. I'm not sure I agree with that. The feedback from the kids at school is that they cannot believe there is a gun range that close to them. It makes them uneasy, uncomfortable," Whaley said. "What's to say that a kid couldn't wander over and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time?"
Officials from Montessori and the church registered their objections during a public meeting last month before hearing officer Lori Dorman.
Dorman has 21 days from the Dec. 19 meeting to make a ruling on the request for a special permit allowing a gun club at the site.
Evans noted that attendees at last month's public hearing acknowledged that there is no way a shot from Ancient Oak could reach those two properties. And he questioned whether anyone would even be able to hear the sound of shooting.
"We understand their concerns, but until there is a problem, there shouldn't be a problem. Safety is not an issue. I'll reiterate, safety is not a concern," Evans said.
Another factor in keeping the decibel level low, Evans said, is that low-brass, low-power, small shot would be the only ammunition allowed at the gun club.
"Because it is low power it is lot quieter than hunting loads," he said. "We check everyone's shells when they come to shoot there."
Dave Neiman represented Bayside Community Church at the public hearing.
Neiman opposed the gun club, citing the presence of outdoor recreational facilities on the church campus, 15800 State Road 64 E., including a soccer field, basketball court and playground.
The church opposes children being exposed to any potential gunfire and shooting noises, Neiman said.
Bob Schmitt, Manatee County Planning Division manager, and John Barnott, director of Manatee County Building and Development Services, said the hearing officer could issue a ruling approving the project, issue an approval with conditions, or deny the request.
Should Dorman issue a ruling allowing development of the gun club, it could only be permitted for clay target practice, and only during daylight hours. The use of rifles would not be allowed.
Vanessa Baugh and Robin DiSabatino, Manatee County commissioners, both confirmed Wednesday that constituents had contacted them with concerns about Ancient Oak.
Baugh and DiSabatino declined to comment because the matter is in the hands of the hearing officer.
Shooting hobbyists have greeted plans for a new gun club with enthusiasm.
"I am very excited. There are a lot of shooters in Manatee County who have to travel to get to a clay club, so it's really going to be nice that we get one in our back yard," Byron Teates, fire chief for the East Manatee Fire Rescue District, told the Bradenton Herald in November.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1.