The long vacant retail spot on North Hoosac where a resident wants to open a sporting goods store that would include firearms as part of its line.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday decided to continue until October an application for a special permit to operate a sporting goods store at 742 North Hoosac Road.
Billy Preite is seeking a special permit for a change to the nonconforming use of the one-time general store that has been largely abandoned for nearly a decade.
Preite's plan includes the sale of high-end, collectible firearms, an aspect that generated considerable concern from neighbors and others in town who argued that the store would be inconsistent with the residential neighborhood.
The retail property is grandfathered as a nonconforming use that predates the enactment of zoning in the 1950s. But the zoning board has authority to determine whether the proposed nonconforming use is "more substantially detrimental" to the neighborhood.
After a long and often heated meeting that featured catcalls and applause from opponents to the proposal who at times either derided or cheered on witnesses depending on their point of view, the board decided to request more information from Preite before revisiting the question at its next scheduled meeting on Oct. 17.
"In a residential area, a firearm poses a unique danger, and it should not be sold," said Jessica Dils, who spoke on behalf of the local political action group Greylock Together. "We should put our children's safety above any economic prosperity that may come from this."
Dils' testimony was one of several that drew applause in the packed Selectmen's Meeting Room.
But Preite also had several residents speak in support of his application
"Right now, if you even say 'gun,' it's a dirty word," Bob McCarthy said. "That's not the type of people [Preite] represents. … The people who would come into his store are not the people who are committing crimes, using firearms for illegal purposes.
"Don't get hysterical. Do not get fearful that what he's putting in there will cause any problems in our neighborhood."
Preite himself said guns will be just one part of his planned operation, which would include fishing and hunting gear.
But when a resident asked him directly whether he would open a sporting goods store if firearms were left off the special permit, Preite said he did not know.
"I would have to see how the market is," he said.
Some of the most emotional exchanges of the night involved longtime Walnut Street resident James Cameron, whose home is next door to the vacant retail site.
At one point, Preite was making the point that the high-end collectibles he sells — which can cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars — are not the kind of assault rifles people associate with mass shootings or the "Saturday night specials" favored by criminals.
"The guns I sell are three-shot, lever action," Preite said, contrasting them to the high-capacity magazine weapons that make headlines. "People who go into schools and malls are there to slaughter people."
"Killing three children is a slaughter, too," Cameron responded.
Cameron's testimony focused largely on the detrimental impact of any retail development on the site.
In his prepared testimony, he talked about his run-ins with past operators at the site who removed snow from the parking area and dumped it on his property and customers who blocked access to Walnut Street from North Hoosac because there wasn't enough parking available at the retail site.
Cameron told one anecdote about a visitor to a former store at the property who he found parked on his lawn. He knocked on the car's window and asked the occupant why he was there and was told, "I'm eating my lunch." Cameron said the person in the parked car got argumentative and only a threatened call to the police got him to move.
Later, in an interjection from his seat during an at times raucous hearing, Cameron again referred to that encounter.
"What if the guy I had words with who was eating his sandwich — what if he's now he's packing a pistol and blows me away? You guys won't care," Cameron said, indicating the members of the Zoning Board.
"The guy eating the sandwich could have had a gun, too," ZBA Chair Andrew Hoar responded.
"You're too much for guns," Cameron shot back. "You should stay out of this."
Several people in the audience expressed support for that sentiment, adding — from their seats — that Hoar, who made comments not to their liking during the discussion — should recuse himself from the decision because they believed he was leaning toward granting the special permit.
As it neared 10 p.m., Hoar asked his fellow board members to help compile a list of information that they would need to reach a decision in October.
That list included a parking plan, a lighting plan and information from first responders about the history of the site and whether past retail iterations have led to blockages of Walnut Street from cars parking in the road to access the store.
Safety and parking were themes that came up throughout the hearing.
"With the gun situation in our country now … it's not fair, I feel, to give a special permit to sell weapons in an area that's a mile from a school, a mile from a church and not far from a day care," said Debbie Cameron, an abuttor. "Our kids at the elementary school, just the other day … they have drills for active shooters … That's not because it's outside the realm of possibility."
As for parking, "Whenever that store has been open, parking has always been an issue with blocking Walnut Street," she said. "That present potentially a serious safety risk. We have elderly people on our street who have been taken out by ambulance. If a vehicle blocked that street, it could potentially mean someone could die.
"If people want to go in that store and the lot's full, they're not going to go home and come back later. They're going to park on my street."
Preite told the board that if he is operating a store at the site, he would take responsibility for making sure that customers do not park in the adjacent street or block the flow of traffic.
But that claim was derided by opponents to the proposal.
"If he has goods in that store, he's not going to be paying attention to parking," James Cameron said. "He's going to be paying attention to making a sale. We're the ones taking the brunt of this so he can open an establishment there, and it's not fair."
Some of the opponents to the application said they would not mind seeing a sporting goods store open on the site as long as its wares do not include guns.
Preite and supporters of his application repeatedly referred to the firearms in his stock as collectibles coveted more for their artistic quality than their potential use as weapons.
Preite himself said that he does not expect to sell many firearms and implied that those he did would be like the ones in his personal collection.
"I've been a collector for maybe 40 years," he said. "I've never fired one of them, ever."
Foster Goodrich, who grew up on White Oaks Road near the proposed site, said there is a strong potential market for a sporting goods store like the one pitched by Preite.
"The expendable income of the folks looking to support this [store] are not the folks being referenced here," Goodrich said. "We're talking about folks with incomes of $80,000 or more looking to spend [$2,000] to $10,000 on a single purpose firearm that's not meant to be an assault rifle. Assault rifles, you can get for $500.
"Gun's are an emotional topic. … I'm just here to say that what he's talking about is dramatically different from our perception of assault rifles and all the [mass shooting] incidents."
Preite said that if someone came in looking to buy a legal, cheaper gun, he would refer them to other gun shops in the area. And he said he had no plans to sell any other kind of firearm than the collectible variety.
Opponents noted several times that once the shop is licensed, he could sell any type of legal gun he wanted, and that his word now was not good enough.
It was suggested several times that the ZBA could condition the special permit on the types of firearms that would be sold — in other words, preventing Preite from selling more than the vintage weapons he promised he would.
"If we put [such] restrictions on him, who would enforce this?" Hoar asked town zoning administrator Andrew Groff.
"You have done this before," he said to the board. "This is a nonconforming use. You have the ability to condition it. My predecessor, Mike Card, had to go and look at the inventory of stores [operating on a special permit] in South Williamstown, and that's always problematic. It would mean constant monitoring, but it's possible."
"If we set conditions, would the [Federal Firearms License] trump that?" ZBA member Jane Nichols asked.
"I am not well acquainted enough with the federal regulations," Groff said. "I'd have to defer to [town] counsel."
Preite noted that the commonwealth has the strictest gun sale laws in the United States.
In other business on Thursday, the ZBA continued a hearing on an application from Main Street resident Alexander Carlisle to rebuild a dilapidated, detached garage on his residential property with the intent to replace the currently nonconforming structure with another building on the same footprint that will double as a garage and 600-square-foot accessory dwelling unit. At the request of member David Levine, the board will make a site visit to Carlisle's property to assess the potential impact of the planned new structure, which Carlisle said would have a roof line about 4 to 6 feet higher than the current structure.
The board approved a request from Ben Greenfield to amend the permit
he received nearly two years ago to convert the former Broad Brook School to live-to-work apartment units. Greenfield asked the board to allow him to accomplish screening with a more diverse assortment of vegetation than was listed in the originally approved plan.
Finally, the ZBA supported an administrative decision against Simonds Road resident Jean Beliveau, who was found to be keeping pigs on a 1.5-acre residential property — well below the 5-acre minimum required for keeping pigs on a property in that district. Beliveau explained that she was raising the pigs for private consumption by her family, and she asked the town for relief from the zoning bylaw in order to get the animals to maturity for slaughter — sometime late this month or early October.
The board supported Town Hall's decision that the pigs must be removed under the bylaw.
Hoar recommended that she engage the Planning Board to discuss a bylaw amendment for a long-term solution to her concern.
In the meantime, he suggested that the immediate situation may still allow for these particular pigs to reach maturity and be slaughtered.
"It takes us some time to file our paperwork, and there's a 20-day appeal before any action is taken … if you get my drift," Hoar said. "If they aren't there by the time the paperwork is completed, we don't have an issue."
Additional information at 9:55 a.m., Sept. 20; one quote edited to remove sensitive information.