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A Rockbridge County judge has overturned a ruling of the county board of zoning appeals that Quail Ridge Sporting Club must obtain a special exception permit to operate its longtime shooting range.

A Rockbridge County Circuit Court judge ruled that Quail Ridge Sporting Club can continue to operate commercial rifle and pistol shooting at its outdoor range.

Judge Paul Dryer’s summary judgment issued Oct. 16 overturned a ruling from the Rockbridge County Board of Zoning Appeals. The board ruled in December that rifle and pistol shooting were not included in the range’s grandfathered status and the owners would have to file for a special exception permit.

The owners, Scott and Crystal Guise, would have faced fierce opposition. Dozens of neighbors opposed the move and complained about increased noise. With the judge’s ruling, the Guises will not be required to obtain a permit.

“It’s bittersweet,” Scott Guise said. “We tried to do everything right from the beginning. We didn’t pick this fight, we just fought it, and are thankful to God for carrying us through.”

The Guises purchased the shooting range from Chris Salb, who opened what was then called Quail Ridge Sporting Clays in 1992 along Murat Road just outside Lexington. The range was small and mostly operated on the weekends for people to shoot clays. Eventually, Salb cut down trees and created a 300-foot clearing where people could shoot rifles and pistols.

As Salb described it to the board of zoning appeals, sporting clays were the range’s “bread and butter,” but he always allowed people to shoot on the rifle and pistol range for a small fee.

In 2007, Rockbridge County created a new ordinance requiring outdoor ranges to obtain special exception permits to operate in agricultural districts. Administrators agreed to grandfather in Quail Ridge and two other gun ranges that were operating prior to the new ordinance.

When Guise purchased the property in 2017, he said he made sure to get the grandfathered status in writing. Sam Crickenberger, the county’s director of community development, sent Guise a signed letter that read, “All current activities may continue as they are as long as they do not cease for a two-year period.”

With that assurance, Guise agreed to purchase the property for just over $500,000 and moved his family from North Carolina to take over the facility.

The zoning issues started after residents complained to county administrators about an increase in noise from pistol and rifle shots. In September 2018, the zoning department sent the Guises a notice they were in violation and ordered they either stop the rifle and pistol shooting or apply for a permit.

Guise appealed to the board of zoning appeals. According to the county’s definition, an outdoor range is “a permanently located and improved area that is designed and operated for the use of rifles, shotguns, pistols, silhouettes, sporting clay, skeet, trap, black powder or other similar shooting sport in an outdoor environment operated as either a business or club.”

Guise and his attorney argued that the county had grandfathered the club as an outdoor range, which by its own definition includes the listed shooting activities.

But the county argued that for 25 years it had been unaware that rifle and pistol shooting was happening on the property. Additionally, business license applications from the previous owner only listed sporting clays, not any other shooting activity.

Guise appealed the board’s decision to the Circuit Court, and his attorney filed a motion for summary judgment. Dryer granted that request and sided with the Guises. He said the board of zoning appeals interpreted the ordinance to mean that each listed shooting activity should be counted as a separate use.

“This interpretation of the Ordinance is plainly wrong,” Dryer wrote. “Trying to reconcile each of the listed activities as separate uses that each require commercialization would require a tortured reading of the Ordinance beyond the plain and natural meaning.”

Because the items listed in the definition are not separate, the current use of the property is within the definition and is grandfathered, the judgment read.

The judge also pointed out that during oral arguments, the county acknowledged the only special exception permit it has granted for outdoor shooting ranges since the new ordinance was to the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office.

The ordinance granting that permit listed only “outdoor shooting range” and did not distinguish between different kinds of guns or shooting activities.

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Alison Graham covers Roanoke County and Salem news. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

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