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Monks, Marines Change Police Firing Range Plan

April 11, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OCEANSIDE — Confronted by an alliance between Benedictine monks and U.S. Marines, the Police Department here withdrew a controversial proposal Wednesday night to build an outdoor firing range on city property between the Prince of Peace Abbey and Camp Pendleton.

The police instead will search for alternative locations that do not disrupt either the monks' devotion to God or the Marines training for combat.

City Council members, who in recent days had criticized the site as unacceptable, unanimously accepted the department's decision to drop its request for a city permit.

"I'm a little concerned that this got so far along without anyone testing the fact that it was going to have so many objections," said Councilwoman Betty Harding. "I hope in the future we plan a little better."

The city Planning Commission had unanimously endorsed the site, but that action is now moot.

"We're back to the drawing board," said Officer Rich Davis, the department's master.

Council members said they had received hundreds of e-mails and letters from residents opposing the plan and virtually none in favor.

"We should be able to worship without hearing the sound of gunfire," retired high school teacher Charles Hall, who attends Mass at the abbey, told the council members.

The monks at the Prince of Peace Abbey feared noise from the firing range would ruin the silence needed for the Roman Catholic order's life of prayer and contemplation. Twenty-five monks spend their days and nights praying and studying at the 130-acre hilltop site.

"Silence isn't a way of life," said Abbott Charles Wright, who runs the abbey. "It is our life."

After the council's action, Wright joked that he is finished with politicking.

"I'm going to retire to my shell again," he said.

Last week, the monks gained an important ally: a key colonel at the sprawling Marine base who wrote to city officials expressing concern about the proposed range's proximity to base housing.

"I'm particularly concerned about the quality-of-life effects this range may have on base residents, especially with its operation during nighttime hours," wrote Col. L.H. Farmer, the base chief of staff.

The Police Department had wanted to build the range in a canyon in the San Luis Rey Valley, within 2,500 feet of the abbey and 1,600 feet of the Camp Pendleton housing on Wire Mountain. The department has lost its lease on its current firing range and must move by October.

The city has a $150,000 grant toward the estimated $900,000 cost. The facility would be used as a firing range--including for SWAT members--and a training site for police dogs.

City Manager Steve Jepsen, who oversees the Police Department, noted that the site preferred by police "does not enjoy public support."

The monks and Marines were not placated by assurances from police officials that berms and fences would muffle the noise and corral any errant bullets.

Although dozens of law enforcement agencies use firing ranges at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside police officials insist that is not a practical alternative for their 171-officer department because of the long drive times to those ranges. The Oceanside department prefers to have its officers on call for emergencies even when at a firing range.

Like other residences in northern San Diego County, the abbey's windows often rattle when Marines at Camp Pendleton are training with heavy artillery.

"We've learned to live with that," Wright said.

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