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Gun club lawsuits settled, bill isn't

Gov. Jeb Bush brings state agencies to the table on a 4-year-old pollution case, but an NRA-backed bill it inspired lives on.

CRAIG PITTMAN and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 22, 2004

With a push from Gov. Jeb Bush, state agencies have settled two lawsuits against a Pinellas Park gun range as Florida lawmakers prepare to pass legislation that would have dismissed the cases.

The settlements end a contentious four-year legal battle capped by the National Rifle Association's push to ban state agencies from ever suing a gun range. NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer called such lawsuits "back-door gun control."

State House members spent an hour Wednesday debating a watered-down version of the NRA-backed bill (SB 1156) and could pass it today and send it to the governor.

Bush, an NRA member for 16 years, said he would sign it.

Under the settlements, filed last week in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, the 57-year-old Skyway Trap & Skeet agreed to clean up lead pollution from spent ammunition.

Skyway had refused to pay for the cleanup and once barred state officials from its property to check for pollution.

The state Department of Environmental Protection will spend $25,000 to assess the pollution. The assessment must begin within 90 days.

"We've determined the environment will be better off if we can get in there, assess it and clean it up," said Deena Wells, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The $25,000 is far less than what the Southwest Florida Water Management District once offered to settle its case. Swiftmud offered to pay for the estimated $1-million cleanup on Skyway's property if the gun club handed over the property and moved. The gun club's directors said they would agree to that only if the taxpayers also bought them a new home and paid for the move.

In making that counteroffer to the water district in December, Skyway attorney Robert E.V. Kelley pointed out that the NRA-backed legislation would kill the lawsuit and hand victory to Skyway. Swiftmud said no.

Now, Swiftmud will give the gun range five acres of public property that is part of Sawgrass Lake Park, and the gun range will give up a legal right to shoot over the nine acres next door.

On its new land the range will then build an impervious wall, perhaps up to 50 feet high, to block lead shot from landing on public property next door.

That way "there will be no further impact to the lake or the wetlands from shooting," said Swiftmud attorney Bill Bilenky. "Environmentally this is a really good solution, if there's going to be a gun club there."

Skyway officials and their attorneys could not be reached for comment.

The two agencies hammered out the deal with Skyway officials during a March 24 meeting at the governor's office moderated by two Bush staffers.

"We got a call from the governor's office saying the governor would like us to make one last try," Bilenky said.

Skyway, a nonprofit range with about 400 members, sits where 74th Avenue N ends near Parkside Mall. No one has ever cleaned up the lead shot, Skyway officials told state regulators.

When Swiftmud took 14 acres of land from Skyway in a 1975 condemnation case, a judge granted Skyway an easement to continue shooting over the property. Swiftmud filed suit in 2000 upon discovering that large amounts of lead shot from Skyway had been straying into wetlands beyond the easement.

After Swiftmud sued, so did the DEP, which enforces pollution laws. The Skyway lawsuits have gone to mediation twice but failed both times. After the second mediation ended in September, state officials asked the judge to schedule a trial. That's when the NRA began pushing to change state law.

Hammer says the NRA did so not because of the Skyway case, but because she got a tip the DEP was about to sue 20 more gun ranges.

State officials say that's not true. In the past decade, DEP records show it left nearly all the state's hundreds of gun ranges alone. The DEP has been involved in lead cleanups at 26 ranges, seven of them privately owned. Of the seven, only Skyway was sued.

The legislation the NRA originally pushed said banning such lawsuits was necessary because overly aggressive state regulators threatened "to destroy the sport shooting and training range industry."

The version that passed the Senate last month, however, gives lawsuit immunity only to gun ranges that implement "best management practices" to deal with their lead pollution problems by Jan. 1, 2006.

For the first time the state must track down every gun range and make sure they are all managing their lead pollution properly - an unprecedented level of scrutiny for an industry that the DEP has until now mostly left alone. The DEP says there are 239 ranges in Florida, while the NRA says there are 400.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he did not know of any other industry with immunity from liability from the state.

During Wednesday's debate, Democrats tried to remove part of the bill that would impose criminal penalties for government employees who sue a range. A Democratic amendment to remove the provision was defeated, 77-38.

Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, whose district includes Skyway, said he will vote against the bill. The settlement proves the law isn't needed, he said.

"The process worked without us doing legislation," he said. "I don't think we should provide immunity. People should be responsible for their actions."

Hammer said the legislation might have hastened the settlement.

"If it were not for the legislation, DEP probably never would have considered settling," Hammer said. "I think their game was to shut the club down."

However, Bilenky said Skyway was under pressure too, because Bush had made it clear he would veto any bill that eliminated Skyway's responsibility.

Not everyone was thrilled with the settlements.

Next door to Skyway, residents of Robert's Mobile Home Park have repeatedly complained about the gun range, to the point that some of them say range customers have waved guns at them. They want the range closed.

Orlando lawyer J. Wayne Crosby, who represents Robert's, said he had not yet reviewed the settlement but could not rule out future legal action against Skyway on behalf of his clients.

- Times staff writers Anne Lindberg and Joni James contributed to this report.

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