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Azusa Has Gun Club in Its Sights

City Council is to decide today whether to devote the shooting range land to a use more befitting the town's new image.

December 20, 2004|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Here, on the edge of the Angeles National Forest, the pop-pop-pop of gunfire punches the air as sounds ricochet from a busy shooting range a mile away. Noise tends to resonate through quiet canyons. Azusa's Mountain Cove, a gated community of upscale homes, is no exception.

Within sight and earshot is the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club. The largest shooting range in Southern California, it has been around since 1946. Olympic gold medalist Kim Rhode of the U.S. shooting team practices there. It is the preferred training range for more than 50 law enforcement agencies and military units, the site of high-powered-rifle tournaments and pistol matches.

Today, the City Council will decide whether the shooting range still belongs in Azusa.

If the council votes to rezone the land the club leases to preserve it as open space, the organization will have 18 months to find a new home, city officials said.

But the club vows to stay and fight.

"Club officials will do whatever they have to do to remain open as a resource," said spokesman Xavier Hermosillo, "even if it means going to the Supreme Court."

The issue is rooted in the foothill city's recent campaign to improve its image. Politicians and residents are increasingly discontented with the city's association with quarries, industrial tracts and the shooting range. The $750,000 homes of Mountain Cove, built two years ago, are part of the new face of Azusa.

And then there's the revised town motto.

The city once used a hokey jingle claiming to offer "Everything From A to Z in the U.S.A." Today, it holds out the promise of being "The Canyon City, Gateway to the American Dream."

Many residents and public officials said the 62-acre gun club has no place in their changing hometown. Opponents would like to see its land, a mix of federal and privately owned parcels, transformed into a public park.

An increase in police officers and other nonrecreational users who train at the club with heavy weapons is part of the problem, said Azusa Mayor Cristina Cruz-Madrid. But the larger issue is that residents are no longer passive about what happens in the city, she said.

The shooting range "is part of that era that just expanded use willy-nilly without recognizing that there's a community on the other side," Cruz-Madrid said.

That community now includes residents such as entrepreneur Lester Kau, who said of the gunfire he hears from his Mountain Cove home: "It's beyond annoying." One of the development's first residents, Kau initially thought the frequent booming was the sound of construction. But the noise persisted.

"Sometimes there's rat-tat-tat ... Sometimes it sounds like a thousand firecrackers going off," said Kau, who also worries that lead from spent ammunition is seeping into the area's groundwater.

Hermosillo said the 530-member club is sensitive to neighborhood concerns. The outdoor range recycles its lead and closes at 4:45 p.m., before most Azusans get home from work. The club repositioned loudspeakers so neighbors wouldn't hear the safety warnings shouted at target shooters.

"It's a safe, regulated environment" that provides a necessary service, Hermosillo said. "If you don't have it, people go shoot in the hills. If you are a hiker, you risk getting hit."

Hermosillo also cited the value of the range as a training facility for law enforcement and the military.

"A lot of these small police departments don't have their own facilities, plus they are in very urbanized areas," he said.

Darryl Hutchinson, 24, a Diamond Bar history teacher who shoots at the club almost every week, said he values the safety of the facility. "I know places out in the desert people go to where you have to dodge bullets."

Support for the gun club, said acting City Manager Robert Person, is coming more "from outside groups than from residents. There's a group of residents who are saying 'Not in my backyard.' "

Person, who supports closing the range, said: "The combination of bullets, boulders and brush is not a good one, especially in a fire area like this."

Supporters of the gun club point out that Mountain Cove residents were advised that the range was nearby. But resident Peggy Morrow said she has a clearer memory of warnings about the proximity of bears and mountain lions than about the gun club.

"If I was warned, it was a very minor deal," she said as she walked her dog through the winding streets. "It was one more piece of paper."

In civic meetings and daylong seminars over the last few years, residents have had the chance to tell the City Council "we like this or we don't like this," about their community, said resident Sandra Rentschler.

Rick Cole, who recently left his job as Azusa city manager to take the same job in Ventura, said the planning process began in the late 1990s when the City Council decided that the town was not going to be "bypassed by its more successful neighbors."

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