Mayor Thomas Bernard says the city's insurer informed him it would no longer cover the range after this year.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city will shut down the gun range off Pattison Road for public use effective Dec. 31 after being informed its insurance carrier will no longer cover the facility after this year.
"I understand that the decision to close the range may be unwelcome to some and applauded by others, ultimately, however, this decision was made in response to the questions that were raised and the resulting findings from the city's insurance carrier," Mayor Thomas Bernard read from a letter provided to the City Council on Tuesday.
The announcement by Bernard caught both the City Council and shooting range supporters off-guard.
"I think we would have a lot more people in here if this letter had been released in advance," said City Councilor Wayne Wilkinson, predicting the councilors would be getting an earful the next day.
The mayor said the city's insurer, the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, would not cover the range after learning how it was being used.
"We consulted with our insurance carrier and when we informed them that we were asking questions in regard to the gun range, they were honestly surprised to know that we had one," Bernard told the council. "Once they knew we had a range, they indicated that while our policy for the current fiscal year was allowable and would continue to cover it, as of July 1, 2019, the gun range would no longer be insured."
Bernard said he made the decision to close the range on Dec. 31, the expiration date of the current permits. The range will continue to be used for police training and certification.
"I hope that does provide time for the current permit holders to make other arrangements for use," he said, adding that letters will be sent out on Wednesday to all current permit holders.
The range has been in use for about 60 years. It began as a sportsmen's club but was taken over by the city sometime in the 1960s. It's not clear how the land was acquired by the city because the assessor's office has no deed on file but rather shows it as part of a large parcel of public land.
Regulations at the range were modified in 2015 and, earlier this year, Council President Keith Bona brought the issue forth on behalf of user Robert Lyons, who questioned the changes. The Public Services Committee held two meetings to take input from users — and opponents — of the range.
Councilor Benjamin Lamb, a member of the committee, thought the "robust conversations" had been productive in suggesting minor tweaks to the policies and laying out a path forward for the users to have more voice in its operations. The feedback was sent to the mayor's office.
"I think I'm disappointed overall with what transpired here," Lamb said. "Fortunately, or unfortunately, this letter lays it out pretty cut and dried what the situation is with our insurance and I don't know if there's creative solutions to fill that gap in an insurance capacity."
Councilor Jason LaForest, also a member of the committee, said he was shocked that the insurer wouldn't cover the range yet will allow it to continue the coming year.
"How could the insurer not know that we have had a gun range of 60 years in the city?" he asked.
Administrative Officer Michael Canales said gun ranges are not excluded from insurance but municipal ranges are usually limited to use by police, who are public employees, for training purposes.
"They did not realize we were running a public one," he said. "Now that they are aware we're running a public one, they advised us to run it under the recreational use statute to allow us the best protection under the law."
The recreational statute does not allow charging fees (except for parking) or access restrictions by age or other limits.
The city had already contracted with the carrier through fiscal 2019 so MIIA agreed to provide coverage until June 30, 2019, when the range will become an excluded use.
North Adams appears to be a rare municipality, and possibly the only one at this point, with a public gun range, Bernard said, or at least the only one that MIIA knew about.
Barnstable had a public gun range that closed in 2012 when its insurer declined to continue coverage. A number of other issues related to the range — including an expensive cleanup and a land swap — seemed to have delayed the town's stated attempts to reopen it.
North Adams would have to go out to a private insurer to cover public use of the range, which the administration thought could cost users between $100 and $150 for a permit. There are about 60 users, so a rough estimate was given at $7,500. The current fee is $10 a year for residents, $25 for nonresidents.
"My opinion is the city should reconsider closing the gun range," LaForest said. "The gun range has been in use for over 60 years. At the two committee meetings that we held, there was no indication, no direction of conversation indicating that the course would be closing."
The council was about to address hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending that very evening he said, but "we seem to be closing a very popular gun range ... for the tune of $7,500."
Wilkinson said there also could be informal talks between the councilors and the administration to come up with an answer. "We certainly spend a lot more on paper clips than the insurance is going to cost in the school budget," he said.
The council went back and forth on what the next steps could be since it has no administrative control over the range.
Councilors were taken by surprise by the announcement and suggested more people would have shown up Tuesday night if they'd known about the decision.
"I am quite disappointed in this decision," said resident Alison Lyons. "I think there are 11 other municipalities in the state of Massachusetts who operate public ranges." She suggested the city look at those, mentioning Barnstable and Harwich.
"I'm definitely OK with paying a little extra for private insurance on the range if it requires that," said Shawn Keith, who added it was upsetting to find out the mayor planned to close it.
Robert Smith, however, wondered how popular the range really was considering how few residents used it. "Is it worth us getting involved in spending money to an insurance company to maintain it?" he asked. "We have to be careful with our money, we have to spend on things that apply to the majority of the community."
After some discussion, and more input for and against from residents, councilors voted to postpone Bona's initial communication from February so another meeting of the Public Services Committee could be held to at least allow conversation and possibly brainstorm some alternatives to present to the mayor's office.
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