HUGHESTOWN — A sharp, booming gun blast one afternoon led to a barrage of at least 40 more, ringing out one after another before the air fell silent.
For Hughestown residents within earshot of a makeshift shooting range on private property parallel to Parsonage Street, the sound of the gunfire is a frequent visitor to their porches and yards and an unwelcome guest inside their homes.
Those residents, however, say they are unable to make headway in eliminating or reducing the nuisance noise, stymied by a borough ordinance that protects the property owner’s rights.
Cops on site
Further complicating matters is the site’s usage by off-duty police officers from multiple local agencies, many of whom receive firearms qualifications there, according to borough police Chief Jeff Balut.
Balut, who was named chief earlier this year after serving as officer in charge since 2014, said he has instructed Hughestown officers to no longer shoot there, but acknowledged some had done so as recently as last year.
The range, overseen by borough resident Ken Nowakowski, is located on old mining tracts near Party Time Manufacturing Company. Describing the design of the range, Nowakowski said there was “no chance” a stray bullet could ricochet and pose a safety risk.
He said participants pick up and properly recycle shell casings, which he stated were from either 9 mm or .40-caliber weapons.
Asked why police shoot on his property as opposed to sanctioned, commercial shooting ranges, including one less than nine miles away on Suscon Road, Nowakowski said his range offers officers a freedom they wouldn’t have anywhere else.
“They can’t shoot tactically on those ranges,” Nowakowski said. “They’re limited to how many rounds they can shoot and if there’s other people there shooting, they can’t do what they need to do. At my place, they have the freedom to teach.”
Specific details about what courses of fire are used, where that firing takes place or how frequently firearms training occurs are left up to individual police departments, according to the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission.
Four citations have been issued for trespassing on the property, Balut said. No one has been cited for shooting there.
“If someone was in violation of the ordinance, they’d be cited,” he said.
Ordinance under fire
A borough ordinance made effective April 14 decrees that council deems it to be in the best interest and general welfare of borough citizens to promote the “safe and responsible use of firearms so that firearm shooting activity can safely co-exist with the population.”
A violation of the ordinance carries a $600 fine.
Angela Sperrazza, borough solicitor, said there are no stipulations in the ordinance that preclude members of law enforcement from using the range.
“That was the position of council when they enlisted me to draft it,” Sperrazza said. “They didn’t want any differential treatment as to who was back there.”
No one was present when the ordinance was voted on and there was no outcry against it, Sperrazza said.
“It’s a unique issue because there’s a lot of concerns and the borough itself must weigh what may be, in some ways, a private concern between multiple citizens and one other citizen,” she said.
Borough Mayor Wayne Quick did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Sperrazza, who has served as solicitor since 2012, maintained Nowakowski was within his rights to operate the informal range.
“It’s his private use of his land,” she said.
Prior to a borough council meeting last month, Sperrazza said Nowakowski told members of council four to five people had access to the range and he would provide a list “because it became an issue.”
“He hasn’t done that yet,” she said. “I don’t know why that is.”
According to the language of the ordinance, an “owner” refers to a person owning, leasing, occupying or having charge of any premises in the borough. It also states the discharge of the firearm must occur on the individual’s own property or the property of another with permission of the property owner.
County property records list Nowakowski’s father, Joseph L. Nowakowski, as owner of four parcels of land, including the area of the range. Joseph L. Nowakowski died in 2005, according to Times Leader archives.
Ken Nowakowski said he has not yet had the chance to transfer the parcels into his name but stated he pays the taxes. Luzerne County Tax Claim records for 2014 indicate a total of $3,369 in delinquent taxes on the four parcels.
“I’m the owner of the property,” Nowakowski said. “I’m complying with all local ordinances when I’m utilizing the property for target practice.”
Calls to 911
According to Luzerne County 911 call data, 13 weapons calls were received from the borough since the start of 2014. The “weapons” incident code encompasses any type of weapon, most often referring to a knife or gun being used in some fashion, a 911 official explained.
Shots in the air, a person carrying a knife, someone carrying a gun that hasn’t shot it yet would all fall under the weapons category. Six such calls came from Party Time Manufacturing Company, which is located closest to the range. Multiple messages left for ownership at Party Time were not returned.
Four of the calls came from Kathy Healey, who lives on Parsonage Street about a tenth of a mile from the site and who earlier this summer recorded the array of gun blasts from her yard. Healey provided the recording to a reporter.
The gunfire, Healey said, has been occurring “for years” — sometimes daily — but only as of late has the borough become more responsive to addressing the issue.
“I didn’t know if I could do anything about it,” she recalled. “They basically told me it was his right to let people shoot on his property.”
Another neighbor, Scott Carey, said he has a young daughter with a sensitivity to loud noises. According to Carey, when the range is in use, gunfire is “crystal clear” in his backyard on Griffith Street, under a half-mile from the site.
One of Carey’s biggest concerns is with control.
“The overall picture there has become an absolute free-for-all. There’s zero control over it,” he said.
Balut said he was sympathetic to residents’ concerns.
“As frustrating as it is to the residents, it’s equally as frustrating to me,” Balut said.
Healey said things have begun to quiet down as the seasons change and temperatures begin to drop, but Balut said that doesn’t signify a solution.
“If things subside for the time being because of the weather, so be it,” Balut said. “But if it’s going to start again in the spring, we need to address it.”
Healey said she would be willing to compromise with the property owner.
“If there’s a list and there’s six people over there, give them times and time limits and then we’ll know it’s coming and when it’ll happen,” she said.
Nowakowski indicated he is in the process of obtaining legal representation in the matter, including enlisting the services of an attorney with the National Rifle Association.