Millville Plains residents filed a lawsuit demanding a halt to any construction on the High Plains Shooting Sports Center until a full environmental impact report has been completed, according to a writ of mandate filed in the Shasta County Superior Court on Nov. 21.
“The initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration for the project does not provide adequate environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act,” states the writ submitted to the court by the petitioner’s attorney, Donald Mooney from Davis.
“Substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the project may have potentially significant environmental impacts to biological resources, water quality, noise, public safety and wildfire.”
The Millville Plains are approximately 8 miles east of Anderson. The proposed Millville Plains gun range — which includes 160 shooting positions for pistols, rifles and shotguns – would occupy a 151-acre parcel just north of the intersection of Dersch Road and Leopard Drive.
Shasta County District 4 Supervisor and board chair Patrick Jones is developing the gun range project, which is surrounded on all sides by similarly sized rural residential parcels.
It’s the residents and property owners of the parcels surrounding the proposed sports shooting center who’ve brought the lawsuit, a group “composed of persons whose personal, aesthetic and property interests will be severely injured if the adoption of the project is not set aside pending full compliance with CEQA and all other environmental laws,” according to the writ of mandate.
At issue are a series of decisions made earlier this year by the Shasta County Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors that permitted Jones to proceed with the project under a “mitigated negative declaration” instead of conducting a full environmental impact report.
In April, the planning commission voted 4-0 to recommended that the board of supervisors grant Jones’ request to change zoning on his parcel from Limited-Residential combined with Mobile Home and Build Site 40-Acre Minimum Lot Area to Commercial Recreation.
District 3 planning commissioner Steven Kerns recused himself from the vote, since his firm, Wildlife Resource Managers, completed the biological report that helped earn the project a mitigated negative declaration.
After kicking the can down the road in May, the board of supervisors granted Jones’ zoning change request on Oct. 24 with a 3-1 vote. As the project applicant, Jones recused himself from the dais but remained in the baord chambers until the vote was taken.
District 1 supervisor Kevin Crye, District 2 supervisor Tim Garman and District 5 supervisor Chris Kelstrom approved the zoning change; while District 3 Supervisor Mary Rickert voted against greenlighting the project, which is in her district.
“I haven’t had one constituent from that area tell me they think this is a good idea,” Rickert said at the meeting.
Although Jones first purchased the land in 2010, most of the affected Millville Plains residents didn’t become aware of the gun range project until last March, when the county released the initial study/mitigated negative declaration for public review and comment. Some of the rural residents claim they were never officially notified about the project and only heard about it through the grapevine.
“The Department of Resource Management seems to be afraid of Jones, or they are concerned that they may be fired if they don’t move the project through the system quickly,” said Dennis Patterson, whose property sits on the west side of the proposed gun range. “Our parcel will be negatively affected by the gun range, but we never received a notice that this was to be before the planning commission. I found out because one of our neighbors, who I had never met, drove up our driveway to tell me about it.”
The Millville Plains residents have been playing catch-up ever since, particularly compared to Jones, who has been quietly ticking off boxes with regulatory agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, for more than a decade.
Under the mitigated negative declaration, Jones is permitted to modify the project to address public complaints. For example, sound barriers have been added to some of the gun range’s 160 shooting positions to protect the residents closest to the range from excessive noise. The planning commission has revised the IS/MND twice after public input, once before the planning commission meeting in April, and once before the board of supervisors meeting in October.
But as the Millville Plains residents made clear in May when they hired Mooney, the mitigated negative declaration isn’t going to cut it for them. In a letter to the board, Mooney warned that granting the mitigated negative declaration violated CEQA because substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the project may have potentially significant impacts that haven’t been mitigated.
Six months ago, much of the evidence presented by the Millville Plains residents was of the lay variety, hastily compiled by the residents themselves as they desperately fought to maintain their rural way of life and their property values, which could plummet if the shooting sports center is built. No one wants to live next to a gun range, especially one featuring overnight camping and as many as 200-500 competitors on a given weekend.
Wildlife Resource Managers and RCH, the contractors which conducted respectively the biological review and the noise technical report for Jones, supposedly refuted this mostly lay testimony in responses made available to the public in May.
However, in October, Mooney brought in the heavy hitters: highly respected environmental biologist Scott Cashen and acoustics expert Pablo Daroux. Their expert testimony was provided by Mooney to the board of supervisors on Oct. 18, a week before the Oct. 24 meeting in which the supervisors approved the gun range rezoning.
Under CEQA, the Shasta County Planning Division is the lead agency in the gun range project. The writ of mandate seeking an injunction against Jones, the county and the board of supervisor’s states, “An agency’s decision not to prepare an EIR is judged by the ‘fair argument’ standard of review. Under this standard, an EIR must be prepared ‘whenever it can be fairly argued on the basis of substantial evidence that the project may have a significant environmental impact.’”
An environmental biologist with 30 years in the field and more than 200 major projects under his belt, Scott Cashen’s demolition of Wildlife Resource Managers’ biological review presents substantial evidence that seemingly meets the “fair argument” standard.
Remarkably, Supervisor Rickert appears to be the only board member who read Cashen’s damning report—or at least the only one who took it seriously.
While Rickert said she was not at liberty to discuss with A News Cafe any potential law suit related to the shooting range, she was able to speak about the proposed shooting range project, and the Cashen report.
“I did read the report. We own a ranch close to the site, so I am very familiar with the wildlife, fire danger, etc. in that area. All very legitimate concerns. Stray bullets really concern me also. I worry about the safety of the neighbors and the disruption to their lives,” Supervisor Rickert said.
“Again, for the record, I voted no on this project primarily because the constituents I represent were opposed to the gun range. I agree with many of the findings in this document.”
(Mooney’s Oct. 18 letter with the reports from Cashen and Daroux was not included in the online information packet for the Oct. 24 board of supervisors meeting. A News Café readers may download the pdf here.)
Cashen begins by pointing out that even though the gun range project requires mass grading and excavation for utilities, parking areas and driveways, the on-site wastewater treatment system, stormwater drainages and culverts, bullet backstop mounds and building footings, the IS/MND provides no grading plan or grading limits.
“This precludes the ability to assess the direct and indirect impacts that grading and excavation could have on sensitive biological resources, (e.g. wetlands),” Cashen reports, noting that the roads and trails required to perform maintenance on the 500-, 600- and 1000-yard bullet backstop berms are not depicted on the plans. Neither are the wheelchair accessible trails for the rifle, pistol and shotgun ranges.
This makes it difficult to accurately predict the impact on the 12 acres of grasslands and the 12 acres of vernal pools and swales in the project’s 151-acre footprint.
The IS/MND project description is rife with contradictions. For example, WRM claimed there would be minimal lighting at night, even though the plans include overnight dry camping for RVs during the range’s larger events. Although Jones hopes to host as many as 500 competitors at these events, there’s no description of the facilities that will be required to host large crowds, such as extra toilets and bleachers.
Lead ammunition will be prohibited at the proposed range, but Cashen notes that other heavy metals used for ammunition such as copper and zinc are soluble in water and can enter runoff and affect water quality. Bear Creek forms the eastern boundary of Jones’ property. Copper is toxic to gill-breathing organisms, including amphibian larvae and vernal pool branchiopods, including the federally listed vernal pool fairy and tadpole shrimp. Zinc is toxic to fish, including salmon, which are known to inhabit Bear Creek and the nearby Sacramento River.
More concerning are the biological review’s omissions, particular in regard to special status species. While it notes that three protected species, the short-eared owl, northern harrier and the ringtail cat, may live in the project area, “it provides no analysis of, or mitigation for, impacts to these three species.”
At least nine special status bird species known to live in the immediate project area, including the cackling goose, northern harrier, ferruginous hawk, prairie falcon, merlin, loggerhead shrike, bald eagle, golden eagle and burrowing owl are not addressed in the original IS/MND. In the second revision of its report, WRM later discounted the presence of bald eagles, golden eagles and burrowing owls in the project area, even though its own report found eagles flying near the site and the presence of imperiled burrowing owls has been detected at Leopard Drive— a Millville Plains birding hotspot.
According to Cashen, it’s not the number of nests on the site that matter the most to these birds, as the IS/MND states. It’s the potential degradation of their habitat, which also serves the migrating birds of the Pacific Flyway, contrary to WRM’s biological review.
Cashen pointed out three “fatal flaws” in the project’s noise technical report: First, no data is provided on the existing ambient noise at the site, making it difficult to set a baseline. Second, the report uses an hourly average for gunshot noise that’s “misleading and inappropriate” for measuring impulsive and unpredictable sounds, such as gunfire. Third, the report underestimates the number of shooters and the noise they would create during large competitive events.
“WRM acknowledged RCH’s noise study (and associated recommendations) did not address impacts to wildlife,” Cashen notes. “This invalidates WRM’s ability to cite the noise study as justification for the assumption that implementing RCH’s recommendations would reduce impacts on wildlife to less-than-significant levels.”
Similarly, acoustic expert Pablo Daroux eviscerates RCH’s noise technical report. He begins by pointing out that the low ambient noise currently at the site will increase the sensitivity of both humans and wildlife to sounds emanating from firearm discharges. He notes that the report doesn’t consider wind or temperature inversion effects, which can dramatically affect sound travel. According to Daroux, RCH used a “simplistic prediction methodology prone to significant errors.”
For reference, consider that the amount of time the sound of a shotgun blast lasts ranges from 3-5 milliseconds.
“Averaging over time the very short duration, high intensity noises due to firearms, with the very low environmental noise currently prevailing in the area results in low averages that underpredict its potential adverse effects,” Daroux writes.
“For example, if the hourly 50 dBA Leq average limit imposed by the [general plan’s] noise element were to be met as a result of averaging the instantaneous noise level of a burst of shots lasting only five seconds with the otherwise low ambient noise that is present for the rest of the hour, then such instantaneous noise could reach levels of 78 dBA and still meet the county criteria. However, our hearing would clearly perceive the noise from each shot, likely eliciting negative responses toward it.”
In his report, Daroux included several passages from the county’s general plan objectives designed to protect residents and businesses from “the harmful and annoying effects of exposure to excessive noise.”
Millville Plains resident Ed Wilkes’ shot-fall study shows potential danger to Millville and Highway 44 travelers posed by gun-range fire.
Expert testimony can come from laymen, as evidenced by the shot-fall study on the High Plains Shooting Sports Center conducted by Millville Plains resident Ed Wilkes. His point paper on the shooting range’s “surface danger zone” notes that the proposed backstop berms for the rifle ranges are 20 feet high. On the 300-yard range, inadvertently raising the barrel of an 18-inch rifle by 5/16th of an inch will send the bullet flying north over the top of the berm and off the range.
Rifles such as the .450 Marlin and .300 Winchester have a maximum range of 7000 yards, which is about 4 miles. According to Wilkes, that places a good portion of Millville and Highway 44 in the proposed range’s surface-danger zone, including his own residence.
Jones, who has worked at the family gun store most of his life, countered Wilkes’ report with Google Maps printouts of the Record Range, the Redding Gun Club and his proposed shooting sports center. He noted that the Redding Gun Club is just a half-mile from Deschutes Road and there’s never been a shot-fall accident.
But there was something missing from the crude scribblings on Jones’ map.
“The applicant correctly discussed the Redding Gun Club, and its 100-yard rifle range only 0.5miles from Deschutes Road,” Wilkes wrote in a response delivered to the board on Oct. 23, the day before the meeting.
“However, what the applicant didn’t mention was that his proposed 300-yard rifle range has only a 20-foot-high berm as a backstop, whereas the Redding Gun Club has a 110-foot-high hill behind its 100-yard rifle range.”
After reading Cashen, Daroux and Wilkes’ reports, it’s clear that there’s an avalanche of substantial evidence supporting a fair argument against the rosy claims made by the consultants for Jones’ gun range project. Significantly, Wildlife Resource Managers and RCH have not responded to the expert testimony provided by Cashen and Daroux.
At the Oct. 24 board of supervisors meeting, Shasta County Department of Resource Management director Paul Hellman shrugged off the new evidence.
“I don’t know if his consultants have responded,” Hellman said, admitting that he could make the call that the Millville Plains residents have a fair argument against the project, but he wasn’t going to “because I didn’t feel the need or that it was fair [to Jones] to change that determination.”
Hellman raised the specter of a “never-ending process” for Jones, who’s been quietly chipping away on his dream project since 2010.
Hellman apparently didn’t consider that most of the Millville Plains litigants didn’t find out about the High Plains Shooting Sports Center until earlier this year. David Schlegel, the lead planner on the Jones project, did not respond to a list of questions sent via email by A News Café about the new evidence presented by Mooney.
Likewise, supervisors Crye and Jones did not reply to A News Café’s inquiries. Supervisor Garman did reply, but only to issue a no comment due to the pending lawsuit.
At the Oct. 24 board of supervisors meeting, several Millville Plains residents complained that in case of wildfire, there’s only one way out of the gun range: Leopard Drive. Frank Banuelos, a veteran diagnosed with PTSD whose home is the nearest to the proposed shooting sports center, painted a dire picture of the wildfire danger.
“In the summertime the grass is about that high out there,” Banuelos said, indicating with his hand a height of 2-3 feet. “If there’s a fire, and we’ve had plenty of fires out there, the people there are not going to get out. They’re going to be burned up due to trying to get to Dersch Road on [Leopard Drive]. There’s a little hill that goes down. As people go down and they’re all trying to get out it’s all going to be bottled up and they’re going to try and crash the fences and go on to Dersch, but you can’t because there are ditches.”
Jones, who was permitted to stay in the chamber during deliberations, refuted Banuelos and other residents who claimed there was only one way out of the shooting sports center.
“There’s also an exit off of Impala, a deeded exit that goes all the way over to Millville Plains [Road],” Jones said. “So, for some people that say there’s only one way out, that would be incorrect.”
Dennis Patterson, the resident whose parcel butts up to the western edge of the gun range, disputes Jones’ claim there’s more than one way out of the range in case of wildfire.
“Patrick Jones stated that there is a second emergency exit path to the north of the gun range,” Patterson told A News Cafe. “That is untrue. It may show on a map, but it is only passable through existing gated properties and needs a 4-wheel drive to make it through.”
According to Google Maps, the section of Impala Drive that connects to Millville Plains Road does not fully connect with the section of Impala Drive coming from the range. Jones did not respond to A News Café’s questions about egress in case of wildfire.
So far, it appears the Shasta County Superior Court has not scheduled a hearing for the writ of mandate, which asks the court to “vacate and set aside approval of the Initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration for the project on the grounds that it violates the California Environmental Quality Act.”
It also asks the court to vacate and set aside the planning commission’s recommendation for the project and the board of supervisors zoning change. It also demands that the county “prepare, circulate and consider a legally adequate EIR for the whole project.”
Until then, the petitioners request the suspension of all construction on the project.
The writ of mandate also asks the court to reimburse the Millville Plains residents for the costs associated with the legal action, including an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees to Mooney.
In more legal news related to the proposed High Plains Shooting Sports Center, the Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating a sworn complaint that supervisor Crye violated the Political Reform Act’s conflict of interest provisions when he voted on the gun range.
The FPPC is responding to a complaint brought by Jeffrey Gorder, former Shasta County public defender and co-founder of the movement to recall Crye. In short, Gorder alleges that during the past six months, Jones has donated more than $250 to Crye’s campaign against the recall, in the form of items provided for fundraising auctions and local radio station advertisements.
“When I discovered that the [gun range] had been agendized, I realized Mr. Crye likely had a conflict of interest in the matter because of the significant in-kind campaign contributions he had been receiving from Mr. Jones during the 6 months prior to the hearing,” Gorder told the FPPC. “I emailed Mr. Crye and told him I thought he should recuse and should consult with legal counsel to confirm.”
Crye did not recuse himself from the gun range vote even as he publicly lambasted the dozens of Millville Plain residents who testified at the Oct. 24 hearing.
“It’s hard to take all of these comments as anything other than just blatant lies and fabrications of the truth, knowingly misleading the public,” Crye said. “This is the gaslighting that goes on.”
Perhaps realizing he’d gone too far, Crye walked the statement back, claiming he heard and understood the residents’ complaints and inviting them to sue Jones, the county and the board of supervisors if they didn’t like his decision.
He then voted with Garman and Kelstrom to approve the zoning change.
In his FPPC complaint, Gorder noted he’d also contacted Jones about the auctioned firearms and the radio ads supporting Crye, which he believes surpassed the commission’s $250 annual threshold for declaring campaign donations that may represent conflicts of interest.
“The ad was removed today and a new ad has started,” Jones replied to Gorder, admitting to the infraction. “Very little money was spent on that ad. The new ad will run much more. Thanks Chair Jones.”
The FPPC incorporated Gorder’s complaint into an existing case against Crye initiated by complaints filed by conservative political activist Dolores Lucero. The investigation is ongoing.
To donate to the Millville Plains residents’ legal cause, go to their Go Fund Me page.