Traffic moves in both lanes on the Trafton Road in Waterville past businesses at the intersection of the West River Road in May 2019. A Waterville Police Department shooting range is now being built across West River Road from the Trafton Road development. Morning Sentinel file photo

WATERVILLE — People who live near a police firearms training range being developed on West River Road told the Planning Board on Monday that they are concerned about noise from the range interrupting their peaceful way of life.

The police department asked the board for an informal application review for the construction of a firing range at 970 West River Road, a project the Waterville City Council approved. No vote was required Monday by the Planning Board, but the project is expected to come back before the board Jan. 4, at which time members could take a final vote.

On Oct. 6, the council awarded a $173,273 contract to Ranger Contracting Inc. of Fairfield to grade and cover lagoons on West River Road, near where the police firearms training range was to be developed.

City officials said they hoped to build the range with $350,000 in borrowed funds, part of which would be used for the lagoon work.

Michael Boucher of Sidney told the board Monday that he lives within 1,000 feet of the proposed firing range site, where he recently built a retirement home and did so because of the peaceful nature of the area.

He asked what will be done to keep the noise level down and what the schedule will be for when police train there.

“One of my questions for you is, why can’t you use silencers on these guns to have less impact for the neighbors?” Boucher said. “Now, it’s going to be definitely a nuisance with pop, pop, pop all day long.”

Planning Board Chairman Paul Lussier said he appreciated Boucher’s concerns, but the board has no authority to order that silencers be used or interfere with police scheduling. The board is reviewing the project under the city’s site plan review ordinance.

“We can’t be shackling the police department to those types of rules,” Lussier said.

When the range is completed, noise levels will be tested, he added.

“It’ll be within the city’s ordinance, and we hope that satisfies everyone,” he said.

Police Chief Joseph Massey said he explained to Boucher in an email earlier Monday that the range would be used with some regularity, but what that schedule will look like, he does not know. As the project moves forward, police will have a better sense of the scheduling, according to Massey.

“It certainly will not be every day, that’s for sure,” he said.

Massey said the range is outdoors, and the city is in the process of purchasing suppressors for all of his department’s rifles. In addition to natural dirt berms at the range, 40-foot-tall dirt berms were built, and 10-foot-tall HESCO barriers are being built between shooting lanes that will help reduce noise, he said.

Police will train with pistols and rifles, but no automatic weapons will be used, and only Waterville police officers are expected to use the range, at least in the beginning.

Gina Turcotte of Sidney lives 1,000 to 2,000 feet from the range site, rents a single family house from Boucher and is considering buying the home, but the gun range will impact her decision, she said. Turcotte said she is a paralegal who works from home 100% of the time and does phone and video conferences with clients, the courts, attorneys and others, and must have quiet to do so, for both herself and those with whom she works, she said.

Massey said the plan to develop a firing range started five or six years ago as the city looked for a suitable location. Police now train at the Winslow range but scheduling is difficult and does not meet Waterville’s training needs. With a department as large as Waterville’s, officials decided it needed its own range, he said.

In late 2017, the West River Road property was identified as the best location for the range as it had a natural landscape with high and steep banks, according to Massey. Over the last year, site work has included hauling in fill, he said.

In 2017, the decibel level was tested there and it was in the mid-70s decibel range, but since then, the high berms were installed and other work was done that would decrease the noise, he said.

Planning Board member Neal Patterson asked if that decibel level was at the closest residence to the range. Massey said it was not.

“We feel very comfortable that, with the height of berms at 40 feet, it will be well within what the decibel level is in the ordinance,” he said.

Waterville resident Stu Silverstein said he can understand the need for police to practice firing, but he thinks the property would be better suited for a solar farm and the city would be better off continuing to use Winslow’s range or use Augusta’s, and not spend money for a new range.

Massey responded that Winslow’s site no longer fits Waterville’s needs in terms of availability, size and training options. Waterville has outgrown the Winslow range, he said. Logistically, it would not make sense to go to Augusta.

“Shooting skills are very perishable, and if you don’t keep them up, then, in fact, they perish,” he said.

In other matters, the board voted 6-0 to approve a final plan by Lost Legends to build a marijuana growing operation at 125 Airport Road. Members also voted 6-0 to approve a request by the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District to relocate a force main on Water Street to city-owned property at 36 Water St.

In a separate matter, board member Bruce White raised the issue of making sure that members of the public be given a phone number they may use to call into board meetings, as the meetings now are being conducted virtually, via Zoom, because of the coronavirus pandemic. He said he thinks people should have accessibility to the meetings.

Monday’s meeting was not livestreamed as City Council meetings are, where members of the public may merely click on a link via the city’s website, www.waterville-me.gov, to tune in. To be able to watch the Planning Board meeting, one had to request a Zoom invitation from City Planner Ann Beverage.

White said he thinks it is important that the public have access, even if by phone, because some people do not have access to Zoom.

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