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County closes shooting range after permit deadline passes

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The gate to the Cowlitz Public Shooting Range is locked as the facility has been closed indefinitely as of June 10. The closure, announced at the last Cowlitz County Commissioners meeting, was due to range organizers failing to meeting a May 29 construction deadline in their special use permit.

Failure to meet a special use permit deadline has led to the indefinite closure of the Cowlitz Public Shooting Range a little more than a year after the facility officially opened.

Announced June 10 during the Cowlitz County Commissioner’s meeting, the shooting range, located north of Castle Rock off Exit 52 on Toutle Park Rd., had been subject to a May 29 deadline to complete its second phase of construction, which involved building restrooms, a kitchen and classroom space in an enclosed building. By the time the deadline approached, Phase II was reportedly 10 working days away from completion, and construction was shut down May 30.

The first phase, which entailed multiple ranges and stations for different types of firearms, had been completed last year, and the range officially opened to the public May 1, 2013.

But the Phase I facilities were subsequently closed June 10, which Range Master Dick Miller said was a step beyond what the county should have taken.

“That’s pretty draconian, as I would say,” said Miller, stating the range has hosted more than 3,500 shooters since opening, while around 630 area residents have purchased regular range passes. “The loser is the shooting public.”

Miller said he feels there have been multiple breakdowns in communication between the county and Cowlitz Game & Anglers, the private club operating the range and organizing construction, stating delays were encountered both in starting Phase II as well as the approval of design plans.

“It’s been misinformation flowing between the county administrators and our club,” said Miller, who is also president of Cowlitz Game & Anglers, adding his group had interpreted a “substantial completion” requirement for the May 29 deadline to mean Phase II was almost done rather than entirely completed.

County Commissioner Jim Misner, who had reported the closure to the commission, acknowledged county officials have “shared blame” in the matter, stating certain revisions requested by architects were “not insurmountable, but they were not addressed in time.”

“As a private business man who has worked through permitting and stuff like that, sometimes the requirements can be very frustrating,” he said, adding he understands if those who have worked on the range feel let down by the county’s decision. “It’s very frustrating for volunteers when something like this happens.”

Misner said a public hearing to consider an extension of the special use permit has been scheduled for July 3, after which he said the hearings examiner may choose to issue a ruling or schedule another hearing for additional community input.

Miller said he would encourage supporters of the range to attend the hearing, as well as send letters to their county commissioners and local newspapers, in order to show the impact the range has had on the region since opening.

“We have people from as far south as Salem, Oregon, and we’ve got some people from Olympia and Chehalis and up in Lewis County,” he said, stating the range had been earning around $1,000 per month before the closure, generating income both for further improvements to the facility as well as the repayment of a $245,000 county loan.

Miller said, if the hearings examiner extends their permit and allows the range to re-open next month, pass holders will be allowed one extra month of use to make up for the time the range is currently unavailable. He added he will also be seeking legal counsel to determine if the Phase I facilities may remain open, but indicated the likelihood may be slim given the bureaucratic processes leading up to the closure.

On top of the passing deadline, a Stop Work Order was issued May 30 to Nipp and Tuck Drywall, whom Cowlitz Game & Anglers had hired to complete Phase II, with the order stating the business had been selected outside of public bidding laws.

Miller said, when the acquisition of materials was sent out to bid in February, no one responded to the county, and his club was then told they had the discretion to acquire materials through their own means. Miller said it was not communicated that this discretion was strictly for materials rather than labor, adding he has since been informed the hiring of Nipp and Tuck should have occurred through an open bidding process, as the shooting range is a county facility.

Misner has said the county would need to follow guidelines for the calling, accepting and approving of bids if the services of Nipp and Tuck were to resume, and said it was a separate issue from the permit violation which simply happened to occur at the same time.

Cowlitz Game & Anglers encourages those with questions to contact the commissioners’ office at (360) 577-3020, or Ron Junker, Cowlitz County facilities service director, at (360) 577-3174. Miller can also be contacted regarding club business at (360) 274-7559.

The July 3 hearing will be taking place at 11 a.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room.

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