McDuffie planners deadlock on proposed police gun range

McDuffie County sheriff's Maj. Ronnie Williamson (left) shows details of a proposed police firearms training range to Jim Alfriend and Planning Commission Chairman Charles Wallace. Alfriend spoke against Williamson's proposal at a public hearing Wednesday. The question goes to the McDuffie County Commissioners on Jan. 17.

 

THOMSON – The McDuffie County Planning Commission failed to reach a consensus Tuesday on a proposed law enforcement firearms training range.

Sheriff’s Maj. Ronnie Williamson asked the commission to support the gun range on a 210-acre, county-owned parcel at Old Wrightsboro Road and Vic Moore Road northwest of Thomson.

Opponents argued that the county should sell the land and put it back on the tax rolls. They also said noise from the shooting range would destroy the tranquility of the isolated homes in the area.

The proposal now goes to the county commissioners without a recommendation. That board will meet 6:30 p.m. Jan. 17 in the Thomson-McDuffie County Government Center.

Williamson said recent court decisions require police departments to better train officers to fire under varying conditions.

“And also, we’ve got to train them when not to shoot,” said Williamson, who has been a firearms instructor since 1979. “These officers must be razor sharp.

“We’re living in a different world today,” he added, citing statistics on shooting deaths among U.S. police agencies.

Williamson said the department now uses the old Georgia Department of Natural Resources range at the McDuffie Public Fishing Area. He said the sheriff’s department must coordinate shooting hours with the DNR, and that process limits opportunities. He also said the range is basically a stand-and-shoot, marksman-style range that does not accommodate low-light shooting and other training options.

Charles Wallace said the county purchased the 210 acres in the 1990s for a landfill, but the escalating cost associated with tighter regulations forced the county to scrap that project. Wallace, a former county commissioner, now serves as chairman of the planning commission. He joined Georgia C. Hobbs in voting against a proposal to deny the request. Members Ron Hickman and Don McCorkle voted in favor of the motion to deny, creating a tie.

The 210-acre parcel is next to another county-owned, 86-acre parcel.

Retired game warden Philip Moss said the smaller lot contains a cemetery. He asked whether survivors of those buried there had been notified of the hearing. He also said the county would be better served by selling the land and putting it back on the tax digest.

Jim Alfriend, a professional forestry manager, said the area north of the old Wrightsboro community is isolated and somewhat of a frontier. He said the county should sell the land or at least set up a timber management plan.

“The county’s not in the business of owning 300 acres of land,” he said.

He urged the sheriff’s department to find a better location, such as underused public land or a dormant kaolin mine.

After the tie vote, Williamson said he still believes the project should advance.

“It’s in the best interests of law enforcement officers, and of the people they protect,” Williamson said as he visited with several of those who had spoken against the plan.

“This is what makes America great,” he said. “Two different groups can tell their sides, shake hands, and walk out.”

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