State’s plan to upgrade firing range draws some concerns
By Ted Glanzer
SIMSBURY — The state’s plan to upgrade the state police firing range with an infusion of $2 million from the State Bond Commission has drawn concerns from town and state officials, as well as a direct opposition by the neighbor to the facility.
The firing range, located in a flood plain on Nod Road, has been a flashpoint of controversy for years, with the state unsuccessfully attempting to relocate the training facility in at least other five communities, most recently Griswold in 2018.
But residents in those communities pushed back against the state’s efforts, with Gov. Ned Lamont making a campaign promise in 2018 when he was running for office that he wouldn’t build a new, state-of-the-art facility on 113 acres of land the state purchased in Griswold when residents bitterly fought the state’s proposal.
There’s no dispute from any party that something has to be done with the current firing range, which, according to a presentation on the state’s Department of Emergency Services & Public Protection and Department of Administrative Services, is too small and is prone to flooding during and after storms – such as in 1984, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011 – because the Farmington River runs alongside the narrow, 12.5 acre strip of land along Nod Road.
The facility “has suffered repeated damages from flooding that have led to deteriorated conditions resulting in permanent loss of an onsite classroom building and permanent sanitary facilities, damages to equipment, and repeated interruptions that impact training schedules and overall operations,” the presentation says.
The $2 million investment in the property, approved by the Bond Commission in April 2021, would attempt to address the flooding by, among other things, raising some structures, as well as rebuilding dilapidated buildings on the site.
At least one neighbor and state Sen. Kevin Witkos (R-Canton), are both calling the plan misguided and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Bob Patricelli, owner of Folly Farm, which abuts the firing range, says the farm and the firing range have “coexisted” throughout the years, even though the gunfire spooks the horses, which is less than ideal when polo matches are played on the property.
When the range hosts the Connecticut SWAT Challenge, “it’s like World War III,” according to Patricelli.
He says it’s “beyond comprehension” that the state would make any investment in the current firing range given that the state has already made the case that a new facility at a new location is needed.
“It is undisputable that the current State Police Training Facility in Simsbury is seriously deteriorated and unsuitable for modern public safety training purposes,” Patricelli wrote in a memorandum he distributed to state and local officials this month. “It needs to be replaced as soon as possible. But to try to replace it with a small and inadequate facility on stilts in a floodplain in Simsbury would be a tragic compromise of an important public purpose and a sad lack of support for the men and women of the State Police.”
In an interview, Patricelli said he was “astonished” when he learned of the state’s latest plan, which was done without consulting local officials or neighbors.
“It just appeared out of the blue,” Patricelli said, adding that he doesn’t believe the state is following its own environmental laws concerning the range.
In addition to the flooding itself, Patricelli says the bullets fired at the range present a high risk of lead pollution to nearby ponds and streams and to groundwater, as well as an Aquarion Water well that is nearby.
“The facility poses a risk of deadly lead pollution to public and private water supplies,” Patricelli wrote.
Patricelli’s solution is for the state police to find a location for a 50,000- to 100,000-square-foot indoor facility that provides the flexibility and the tools necessary for the law enforcement agency to properly train.
Witkos, who served as a Canton police officer for nearly 30 years and whose district includes Simsbury, agrees with Patricelli that the state police should find a new location for their firing range.
“It’s not a NIMBY [not in my back yard] issue,” Witkos said in a telephone interview. “I don’t live anywhere near the facility, but it’s not a good location. As we’ve seen, our weather and our storms have become more severe and unpredictable. We’re seeing [Nod Road] flood more and more. They’ve had to tear the buildings down in the past and put a trailer there. It’s just disgusting that we have one of the finest state police forces in the country and they have to train in a facility like that.”
Witkos says the state should put a hold on its plans until further study can be done as to what the best options are.
He says U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney suggested the state police use the National Guard facility in East Haven. According to the Journal Inquirer, the federal government made an $11 million investment in the facility, which is shared by the East Haven Police Department, years ago. In 2016, Courtney told the JI he believes it’s “the most state-of-the-art shooting range in Connecticut” that could accommodate the state police.
Witkos said the state police don’t want to use that facility because they want their own.
The state police also have a shooting range at the police academy in Meriden to use as the state considers its options, Witkos said.
“Let’s take advantage of an existing range in the interim and then do a study,” he said. There may be some locations in the state where some people want a range in their backyard.”
The plan in Simsbury is a bad idea, he says.
“A range on stilts, it’s not going to work,” he said. “There’s no way. Every year we’ve got more natural debris that clogs up the river, more sediment down there. That’s why you’re seeing overflowing banks; the storms are more severe. Are we going to build a range 20 feet up in the air? Come on, that ain’t gonna happen.”
Local officials weigh in
First Selectman Wendy Mackstutis acknowledged Patricell’s points, and said she had separate concerns, noting that she could hear gunfire at the Latimer Lane School playground and adjacent neighborhoods. The gunfire alone is particularly incongruent, Mackstutis says, given the devastating spasm of gun violence in schools in recent decades.
“My main issue with the gun range is the sound of the range that can be heard up by our Latimer Lane Elementary School and surrounding neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s been there for 30 years, but if the expansion would increase the amount of gun fire heard, it’s a bit disconcerting.”
Mackstutis also is concerned that residents don’t know the plan for the range to be renovated.
The Board of Selectmen may address the issue at its Jan. 24 meeting. Several state and local officials planned to meet on the matter Jan. 20, a meeting set up by state Rep. John Hampton’s office.
The town doesn’t have a lot of leverage as to what it can do concerning state-owned property, Town Manager Maria Capriola said. There are some things, such as if the state wants to demolish a building, that require local approvals, Capriola said. Otherwise, what the state does with the state firing range is beyond Simsbury officials’ authority.
“One of the challenges we have is jurisdiction because it’s state-owned property,” Capriola said. “Because we don’t have much jurisdiction over the permitting of the project, but where I do think we have a role is monitoring the community impacts that could potentially come from any renovation of the facility. Whether that’s noise or environmental impact or traffic impact, that’s where I think we have a role in terms of trying to be involved and monitoring and having the best outcome for our community.
Mackstutis also acknowledged that even if the state firing range were to be relocated, there still would be gunfire in that area, as Metacomet Gun Club abuts the state range on Nod Road. Still, there would be far less gunfire than what’s presently there.
State Police media officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment late last week.