The Philipsburg Rod and Gun Club has been around since 1909, leasing land in Black Moshannon State Park for the past 60-plus years. Now, according to a lawyer for the club, it’s being evicted.
Pittsburgh-based lawyer Joel Sansone spoke to about 25 people in front of a roaring fire at the club’s lodge on Wednesday as snow fell outside. He said the constitutional rights of the club members are at risk.
Responsible citizens and gun owners have been trap shooting (where clay targets are launched from a “house” or machine) for decades, without a single gun-related accident in the club’s history, he said.
“And now, the state, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because of the prejudice of one man, wants to shut this club down, banish its members from here and to trample their rights under the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” Sansone said. He declined to identify the “one man.”
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He also stressed that the club members “support the safe, proper use and ownership of guns.”
Sansone was headed to the courthouse in Bellefonte after speaking to members to file a civil lawsuit in Centre County court against the commonwealth, as well as to file a request for a judge to grant a temporary and permanent injunction to keep the state from “stealing this lovely place from us.”
The club is expected to vacate the premise by April 24, according to the lawsuit.
“We’re not going unless a judge orders us to,” Sansone said. “We’re staying put. We’re gonna fight this injustice all the way — as far, as high as we need to so that these people’s lifestyle can’t be interrupted by the prejudices of one man.”
He said that previous actions by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have already had a significant impact on the gun club — it lost more than 200 members because of a prolonged shutdown from 2006 to 2011 and another yearlong one several years ago. Only about 30 members remain.
The range was closed by DCNR in 2006 due to concerns of unsafe levels of lead (the sport typically is practiced with a 12-gauge shotgun). According to the lawsuit, the club believed at the time that the state was not in possession of any evidence to support its claim of unsafe lead levels.
The lawsuit claims that then-director of the Bureau of State Parks John Norbeck is “a well-known opponent of shooting ranges situated on lands managed by DCNR ... (and) has been instrumental in the closure of several other gun clubs located within ... state parks.”
The lawsuit also alleges that state Department of Environmental Protection testing in 2007 revealed no lead contamination, yet DCNR didn’t permit the club to resume its shooting activities. The club went on to hire environmental consultants, and still was not able to get a permit to reopen. It wasn’t until 2010 that the club entered into negotiations with DCNR to renew its leasehold.
As part of the negotiations, the lawsuit states, the club was required to provide DCNR with an Environmental Stewardship Plan, which included removing the existing shot lead that had accumulated on the surface of the grounds. A final lease was entered into in July 2011 and shortly after the club resumed shooting activities.
“In furtherance of its lease agreement and the (ESP), (the club) submitted several proposals regarding the removal of the surface lead to DCNR in or about 2012. ... Despite (the club’s) numerous proposals, all of which complied with its lease and (ESP), DEP and DCNR indicated, sometime in 2014, that the Defendant would undertake the clearing and reclamation of the existing surface lead,” the lawsuit states.
During the reclamation project, according to the suit, the club was directed to temporarily cease its operations.
The lawsuit alleges that in early 2015, about nine to 11 acres of timber were removed from the leasehold by DCNR, despite language in the lease stating that forest growth was not to be damaged during the lead removal process.
The club was told by DCNR in 2016, according to the lawsuit, that it was expected to bear the cost of the clean-up, estimated to be in excess of $5 million.
In an attempt to resolve the issue, according to the lawsuit, the club met with DCNR reps and staff members of two state senators.
The lawsuit alleges that in a meeting in August, Director of the Bureau of State Parks John Hallas said “this is not an environmental issue, we just don’t want a trap club in the park.”
In November, the club was notified that it had breached its lease with DCNR because it had failed to remove lead shot in designated areas, a claim that the club contends is “materially false.” In January, according to the lawsuit, DCNR told the club that its lease had been terminated as a result of the breach.
DCNR maintains that lead shot is “injurious” to the environment, Terry Brady, DCNR press secretary, said Wednesday.
The idea that the reason the club is being asked to vacate is anti-gun or anti-hunting is “nonsense,” he said, saying that it’s an environmental issue.
The best remedy is for the shooting to stop, Brady said.