A special Pleasant Hill Planning Commission meeting on April 1 will consider gun store zoning rules after the law has been already passed by City Council. What’s the point? Is it just for show? This meeting writes another sorry chapter in the city’s years-long battle to regulate its firearms and ammunition retailers.
After three years of political maneuvering and despite strong opposition from residents, the City’s Chamber of Commerce and businesses, on November 18, 2013 the City Council adopted an ordinance (on a 3-2 vote) establishing a business permit system and zoning restrictions for retailers that sell firearms or ammunition. And once again they want the Planning Commission to cover for them.
The ordinance amendments approved by the City Council did not go before the Planning Commission first. Instead, in what may be an unprecedented move, ordinance amendments regarding Zoning Rules for gun stores will go before the volunteer, seven-member, City Council-appointed Planning Commission now, after the changes have already been made law.
Impacts of Pleasant Hill Firearms Ordinance
The new law prohibits new firearms stores from locating around schools, parks and day care centers, requires background checks for store employees and gives the Chief of Police sole authority and full discretion to grant permits to sell firearms/ammunition.
No existing store locations qualify under the new law, but “grandfathering” is granted so they can continue operations for now. The law also requires that firearms sales cease if the owner dies or the business otherwise changes ownership. Thus the law has dramatically reduced the value of existing businesses.
With numerous schools, parks and day care facilities located throughout Pleasant Hill, it remains unclear what, if any, places are permissible for new firearms stores. To date, no zoning map has been presented publicly that shows acceptable locations for new retailers.
Recently the Chief of Police announced his intent to approve a firearms sales permit for the Dick’s Sporting Goods store set to open soon at the site of the Old Dome theatre. No analysis has been made public that identifies the distance between the Dick’s store and area schools, day care centers and other sensitive uses specified in the new law.
City Defends Law and Zoning Rules in Courts
As expected, one of the existing retailers subject to the new law, City Arms, quickly joined with the National Shooting Sports Foundation in bringing a legal challenge claiming (among other issues) the City amended its zoning rules improperly, without the necessary Planning Commission review. This concern was expressed by many during the public hearing before the City Council last fall.
The lawsuit is in the early stages, with trial scheduled to begin September 12th.
No Due Process for Zoning Rules
The purpose of Tuesday’s public hearing before the Planning Commission is to consider zoning rules for gun stores already approved by the City Council. Since Planning Commission decisions can be appealed to the City Council, this circumstance makes a mockery of due process and places Commissioners in the awkward position of either: a) rubber-stamping the City Council’s prior decision; or b) rejecting the zoning amendments and potentially compromising the City’s legal defense strategy.
Commission Views on Gun Store Zoning Rules
Three years ago the Planning Commission refused to consider similar zoning rules proposed by Councilmembers Michael Harris and David Durant. At its April 26, 2011 meeting, Planning Commissioners made it clear they saw no need for additional regulation of firearms retailers. Here is a sampling of Commissioner comments made at that meeting:
- Commissioner Robert Abbott: “There is no need for regulation or a zoning ordinance amendment . . . There is no safety issue or problem that warrants this regulation.”
- Commissioner David Mascaro (current Vice-Chair): “I’m not interested in seeing this ordinance come back to us . . . I want to see regulations for firing ranges, but not regulations re firearms stores.”
- Commissioner Steve Wallace (current Chair): “I don’t want to see this again before this Commission.”
- Commissioner (and current Mayor who voted for the new law) Tim Flaherty: “I see nothing for this Commission to consider.”
- Commissioner Diana Vavrek: “I’m still in the dark regarding how this came to us. I don’t yet understand it . . . I’m open to this coming back to us, but I need more background . . . I need to know exactly what the danger is [with having a firearms store near DVC] . . .The concerns haven’t been spelled out . . . I don’t quite get the nature of the risk, concern . . . What’s the problem we’re trying to address?”
- Commissioner Jim Bonato: “I have not heard any compelling arguments that support need for a use permit [for retail firearms stores] . . . There is no basis for discussing this further . . . No risk has been spelled out . . . I don’t want this issue to come before us again.”
Despite its timing, this after-the-fact public hearing on gun store zoning rules isn’t an April Fool’s Day joke. In fact, it’s a high-stakes game with serious political, legal and cost implications. The City Council has placed its Planning Commissioners and the public in an impossible position.
Here’s another idea: Rather than throwing away more time and money trying to salvage and defend an ordinance that never should have been passed in the first place, perhaps now would be a good time for the City Council to repeal it altogether.