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Family battles to keep limit on noise with shooting range nearby

Wednesday, May 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:45 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 18, 2009
Daniel, Donna and Kehynan Brown stand in front of their home, which is near Prairie Grove Shooting Sports Inc. The property on which the Browns' home is built has been in the family since the 1940s and the current house was built in 1984. The gun range was built in 1994, as Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club.

There were errors in a story that ran online and on 1A on May 27. The story was about a long-running legal battle between a family and a neighboring gun range.

  • *Prairie Grove Shooting Sports operates Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 8 p.m., the second and third Saturday each month from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and by appointment, according to prairiegroveshootingsports.com. According to the injunction against Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club, which was the legal entity operating the range prior to the formation of Prairie Grove, the gun club was to operate on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (A Nov. 12, 2008, Boone County Circuit Court ruling on motions related to the case can be found here.)
A forgotten community

At the time Sherman Brown Sr. purchased his 20 acres of land, the community around Cedar Creek was made up of several land-owning black families.

Maybelle Brown, 74, who grew up in the area near Cedar Creek, says a rural black community in mid-Missouri in the 1930s and '40s was rare. A road that runs parallel to Cedar Creek, Johnson Lane, is named after her grandfather Commodore Johnson, who owned more than 60 acres of land in the area.

“Land was passed down through black families for a very long time,” Brown said.  “The houses were old and very small.”

As improbable as a rural black community may have been at that time, the history of the land may make the area around Cedar Creek even more unique.

In the 1860s Warren W. Tucker, a slave-owning farmer from Virginia, owned hundreds of acres of land near Cedar Creek, including the 20 acres that would one day be bought by the Brown family. Parts of Tucker’s land that would one day be the Browns’ were taken over by the county in 1944 after the wife of Tucker’s youngest son did not pay four years’ worth of taxes.

Maybelle Brown said as time passed, children moved away and their parents grew too old to live on the land. Almost all of the land the Johnson family owned has been purchased by Gates, Brown said.

According to county records (the deed), the Johnson family sold their last 20 acres of land near Cedar Creek to Gates on Jan. 15, 2002. Brown said the history of the area has been largely forgotten.

“It was a nice little community,” Brown said.


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  • **Ralph Gates, who leases the land to Prairie Grove, said he began serving with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department in 1971.  
  • ***Mid-America Mortgage Co., of which Gates is a co-owner, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of loans to people employed by or retired from the Sheriff’s Department. However, the company subsequently sold those loans to other banking companies. The company does not currently own any of the loans, according to Gates. This is common practice in the lending industry.

There are several clarifications:

  • Ralph Gates is a founder and owner of Mid-America Mortgage Services Inc. According to the company’s Web site, he and Jeanie Byland of Columbia founded the company in 1984. The company’s 2008 annual registration report for the company on the Missouri Secretary of State’s Web site lists Ralph Gates as the president of the company; Stephen E. Curtis, vice president; and Jeanie Byland, secretary. Ralph Gates says that the company has 17 or 18 owners.
  •  The Browns live across the street from the shooting range and may not be the closest neighbor to the range. Sharon Reynolds, according to the trial transcript, also lives across the street from the range. No precise measurements of distance were mentioned in the trial transcript.
  • A sentence in the story said: “Most people would have moved away, as some of his former neighbors have done, instead of putting up with a sound they find maddening.” Mike Black, whose farm bordered the gun club, moved because of the noise, according to the trial transcript and an interview with the reporter. But others moved away for other reasons.
  • A paragraph said: “So their lawyer summed it up for the jury: In one year alone, the gun club shot at roughly 560,000 clay targets. Dividing the number of targets shot by the number of days in a year that the range was open, the Browns could have heard an average of about 1,530 shotgun blasts a day.” The first figure is from court transcripts; the second sentence was a reporter’s calculation.

Finally, it is the Missourian’s policy to call back sources to check the accuracy of quotes and other information. Two sources, Dale Roberts and Guy Loyd, were not contacted.

We apologize for the errors and omissions.

 

COLUMBIA — It’s a sound Daniel Brown has become familiar with after 15 years — the boom and reverberation of shotguns being fired at a shooting range about 600 yards from his home.

Still, Daniel Brown and his family haven’t grown used to it. “It’s just like somebody busted you in the chest,” he said.

Brown, 53, his wife, Donna, 54, and his son, Kehynan, 15, live on 2.5 acres a few feet west of Cedar Creek, the dividing line between Boone and Callaway counties. Prairie Grove Shooting Sports Inc., a 115-acre not-for-profit shooting range formerly known as Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club, lies on the other side of the creek in Callaway County.

Ralph Gates opened the club in 1992, seven years after Brown built his home on land that’s been in his family since 1949.

Gates is also the founder of Mid America Mortgage and owns hundreds of acres along Cedar Creek and around the Browns’ home. The company owns the mortgages of most of the gun club’s neighbors. For about 20 years, he was a reserve deputy with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department — the agency the Browns called when the shooting got too loud. The Callaway County Sheriff's Department, which the Browns also called for help, has used the gun club as a training facility.

Most important, Gates has an acquaintance in the General Assembly who sponsored legislation, which became law, that could make the Browns’ legal victory over the gun club in 2007 short-lived.

Gates has repeatedly declined requests to be interviewed on the record for this story. He has said he doesn’t want to be the focus of any story about the gun club.

But he and the gun club are the focus of the Browns’ existence when they’re at home. It’s a battle they say they don’t want to fight, and its ending is now in the hands of the Missouri Court of Appeals.

“This lawsuit has been a pain in the ass,” Brown said. “I never wanted this.”

The sound and the fury

For the past 10 years, almost every night after he gets off work at the post office, Daniel Brown has stood on his front porch and videotaped the gun club to capture the sound. It’s an obsession that has strained his relationship with his son, and it's nearly cost him his marriage and his sanity.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” Brown said.

A room in the Browns’ home is filled with boxes and plastic tubs full of VHS tapes — 10 years’ worth of gunshots. There are tapes of shotguns firing at 8 in the morning and tape of shots firing later than 10:30 at night.

On the tapes, the couple can be heard yelling toward the club to shut up. Sometimes, it’s just the sound of Daniel Brown talking into the microphone about how tired he is of the racket, how tired he is of recording it. The Browns thought they could use the tapes in court to prove how intrusive the sound had been.

In 1994, when the gun range expanded, the sound of gunfire increased. So, in 2004, Daniel Brown sued the club, alleging that it had severely impaired his family’s ability to enjoy their home. Evidence presented in court by an assessor showed that the Browns’ home had lost between $184,800 and $201,600 of its estimated rental value over the 14 years since the gun club opened, according to the appeals brief.

Daniel Brown felt that suing the gun club for noise nuisance was the only way he could get something done about the problem, he said. In court, he and Donna Brown both testified that they had contacted county commissioners, then-Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane and other state officials for assistance. The answer from everyone was essentially the same, Daniel Brown said: There was nothing anyone could do to stop the noise, no matter how loud it got.

None of the Browns’ tapes of the noise could be used as evidence during the trial because most are narrated by Daniel or Donna Brown.

So their lawyer, Stephen Ryals, summed it up for the jury: In one year alone, the gun club shot at roughly 560,000 clay targets. Dividing the number of targets shot by the number of days in a year that the range was open, the Browns could have heard an average of about 1,534 shotgun blasts a day.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem, who presided in the 2007 trial, had his own analogy for the noise: He compared the gunshots to fireworks at a Fourth of July celebration.

“Consideration is given to the social and economic utility of the operation of the gun club as same would be given to a Fourth of July fireworks demonstration or a Memorial Day Air Show,” the judge wrote. “However, only at the (Browns’) home, most every day is the Fourth of July.”

No restrictions

In the trial, Daniel Brown testified that from 2001 to 2007, he or his wife called the Callaway County Sheriff's Department more than 500 times to complain about the noise. In his testimony, Daniel Brown described the responses he would get from both the Boone and Callaway sheriff’s departments.

When he would call the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, they would say, "We can't do anything about it because it is in Callaway County," Brown testified.  “Callaway County's response was, ‘Well, there is no restrictions over here, so there is nothing we can do about it.’ ”

The Browns are afraid their complaints weren’t taken seriously by the sheriff’s departments because they were the only neighbors complaining about the noise. Other neighbors of the gun club seem to have made their peace with the situation.

The gun club’s attorney, Bob Buckley, noted that fact in his opening statement at the original trial. He said the Browns stood alone in their objections to the gun club. “(The Gun Club has) not been admonished by one sheriff, one agency, by one government official, by activity with too much noise, too long, too late, no evidence at all in this case by anyone,” Buckley said, according to a transcript of the trial.

During the trial, several people who lived around the club testified on behalf of the gun club. They said the noise was bearable and wasn’t loud enough to interfere with their lives in the way the Browns, who live closest to the shooting range, claimed it affects theirs.

But in the court’s judgment, Beetem wrote that “the credibility of the neighbor witnesses testifying for the (gun club) was substantially diminished by their admission of their economic or personal relationships with the principals.”

Jason Peck, who is the Browns’ western neighbor and lives in the house closest to the Browns, testified during the original trial on behalf of the gun club, saying the noise from the shooting range was reasonable. At the time of the trial, Peck had a loan through Mid America Mortgage for $210,000, according to the county Recorder of Deeds.

Jennifer Peck, Jason’s wife, said that they have lived in their house for seven years and that Gates treats them like any other mortgage customer. In February, they refinanced their home for $189,500, according to county records.

“For us, (the noise) hasn’t been an issue,” she said. “There are days when it is worse than others — it depends.”

Several other neighbors who testified at the trial had similar financial ties to Gates. One witness had received a construction loan from Gates’ company to build his house. Another witness testified on behalf of the gun club while she was paying rent to Gates.

Mid-America Mortgage Co., of which Gates is a co-owner, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of loans to people employed by or retired from the Sheriff’s Department. However, the company subsequently sold those loans to other banking companies. The company does not currently own any of the loans, according to Gates. This is common practice in the lending industry.***

Former Boone County Sheriff Ted Boehm refinanced through Mid America Mortgage for the second time on March 13, 1993, for $86,400. The gun club was officially established under state law on March 9, 1993. At the time of Boehm’s retirement in 2004, Mid America Mortgage financed a mortgage for his home worth $270,400, according to the county recorder of deeds.

Gates testified that the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, Callaway County Sheriff’s Department and the Law Enforcement Training Institute had used the club for training.

According to county records, Gates donated $450 worth of in-kind contributions to Sheriff Dwayne Carey while Carey was running for sheriff in 2004.

Besides having customers in the Sheriff’s Department, Gates was one of the first and longest-serving reserve deputies in the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, Sgt. Gene Baumann said.

Gates, who leases the land to Prairie Grove, said he began serving with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department in 1971.** Baumann, who said his reserve deputy personnel files are incomplete, said records show the last full year Gates served with the department was in 1992.

“Those with full-time commissions and who were state certified had full police powers,” Baumann said. “There was no difference as far as the public was concerned — we just didn’t get paid.”

At the end of the trial, Ryals asked the jury to provide something the Sheriff’s Department couldn’t — relief from the noise. “Did you hear one lick of evidence about any law enforcement person doing anything, anything with regard to the operation of that club?” Ryals asked in his closing argument.  “Not one lick of evidence.”

The jury sided with the Browns. After the three-day trial in December 2007, the Browns were awarded $700,000 for emotional distress and the calculated loss of their home’s value. The judge also issued an injunction limiting the days and hours the gun club could use its shooting range.  

Less than two months later, House Bill 2034 was introduced in the Missouri legislature. Among other things, it protects every gun range in the state from nuisance lawsuits stemming from noise complaints. It also eliminates injunctions given before the law came into effect. It passed by a vote of 142-1.

Munzlinger's work

That protection came about through the work of state Rep. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown. While the gun club was appealing the decision of the circuit court, Munzlinger was drafting legislation that could ultimately void the injunction against the gun club.

Munzlinger said he didn’t sponsor the legislation to help Cedar Creek gun club. He drafted the bill to provide protection to gun clubs from frivolous lawsuits, which he says threaten their economic survival across the state. According to the National Rifle Association, there are 67 gun ranges in the state including three in Columbia.

Munzlinger said the bill was being drafted before he knew about the Cedar Creek gun club case. According to the Missouri House of Representatives archives, Munzlinger introduced the bill on Feb. 6, 2008. On Feb. 20, Munzlinger testified on behalf of the gun club at the permanent injunction hearing.

He said he was contacted by the gun club’s attorney and asked to testify, which he agreed to do.

“If you go live in rural areas, you have to be used to noise,” Munzlinger said. “Realistically, we have to put up with some things that we might not enjoy.”

Munzlinger has also sponsored legislation that would allow students with permits to carry concealed weapons on college campuses and a bill that would allow Missourians to buy a handgun without undergoing a background check by local law enforcement. Neither passed.

AAccording to campaign contribution data maintained by the Missouri Ethics Commission, Mary Ann Gates, Ralph Gates’ wife, donated $400 to Munzlinger’s re-election campaign in September, about six months after he testified on behalf of the gun club at the permanent injunction hearing in February 2008.

His campaign also received $1,000 from the National Rifle Association. Campaign contributions for 2009 have not yet been disclosed.

Munzlinger said he first met Ralph Gates before the lawsuit through 4-H, a youth organization overseen nationally by the Department of Agriculture. The program teaches young people proper techniques for handling and firing guns. The gun club hosted the national 4-H shooting championships in 2004 and 2005, according to court documents.

The only House member who voted against Munzlinger’s gun range bill was Jeanette Oxford, D-St. Louis. She said she voted no after reading an e-mail from the Browns about their situation with the gun club.

On Aug. 28, 2008, House Bill 2034 was enacted. That same day, the gun club changed its name.

On the range

If you travel down St. Charles Road, up the gravel entrance toward the gun club, you will see no signs for the Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club. The gun club was legally dissolved in August 2008 — four months after Cedar Creek’s hours were restricted by the injunction. Now in its place stands Prairie Grove Shooting Sports Inc. A sign for the renamed club stands just inside its entrance.

Gates now leases the land to Prairie Grove Shooting Sports. Gates was also the chairman and president of Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club, according to secretary of state filings. Now, he is only a member of the new club and no longer sits on its board of directors, according to Prairie Grove’s 2008 registration with the secretary of state.

Guy Loyd, who began working for the gun club as a manager in September 2005, is Prairie Grove’s general manager and a member of its board. He said the injunction against the gun club is a “great miscarriage of justice.” The club operates Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 8 p.m., the second and third Saturday each month from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and by appointment, according to prairiegroveshootingsports.com. According to the injunction against Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club, which was the legal entity operating the range prior to the formation of Prairie Grove, the gun club was to operate on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (A Nov. 12, 2008, Boone County Circuit Court ruling on motions related to the case can be found here.)**

The new club, like the old club, has six trapping stations to shoot skeet and about the same number of members — slightly more than 100, Loyd said.

The clubhouse is decorated with the heads of various animals, hunting trophies collected over the years. Plaques and fliers from the many groups who have either practiced or held events there adorn the walls. On a cork board near the back of the clubhouse, pictures are posted of club members on safari in front of exotic prey they’ve shot.

Dogs walk through the clubhouse as club members eat before going out to shoot skeet. From inside the clubhouse the sound of shotguns firing — a few feet away from the clubhouse — is muffled.

“It’s hard to hear the gunshots,” club member Dale Roberts said. “Neighbors with barking dogs or screaming kids is much louder.”   

Roberts, who has been a member of the club for five years, said he still isn’t used to the name change or the Prairie Grove signs in front of the clubhouse. The legislation that passed as a result of the lawsuit is positive for ranges across the state, Roberts said.    

"As a result of the Browns’ lawsuit and the legislation that followed, nobody can have recourse against a firearm range,” Roberts said. “There is now absolute protection for gun clubs in nuisance lawsuits.”

The appeal

In July 2008, with the new law in place, the gun club appealed the circuit court decision to the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District, saying that the injunction against the club is no longer enforceable. The question the appeals court must answer isn't whether the gun club’s noise is a nuisance; the trial court already ruled that it was. The appeals court may have to decide whether to lift the injunction on the gun club because of the new law.

In a brief filed with the appeals court, the gun club’s lawyer outlined the argument for overturning the trial court’s decision.

“Cedar Creek is not asking this court to review any ruling of the trial court, but rather to exercise its jurisdiction to vacate the permanent injunction in light of a subsequent change in the law that renders the injunction null and void,” St. Louis attorney Bruce D. Ryder wrote in the appellant brief.

The appeals court heard the case on April 2 at MU’s School of Law during one of its annual appearances away from its home courtroom in Jefferson City. The purpose is to give the public and the legal community a chance to ask questions of the judges hearing cases and provide a look at the appellate process.

In April, the questions about the case came mostly from law students but also from other people interested in the case.

One of them was James Turner, 49, Daniel Brown’s nephew. He asked one of the judges if overturning the injunction would apply to other kinds of cases in which a defendant doesn’t like a lower court’s decision. Would it mean such defendants could just go to Jefferson City and change the law if the court ruled against them?

“Yes,” said Judge Lisa White Hardwick. “You understand the case very well.”

John McCormick, 65, was one of the nine jurors who awarded the Browns $700,000 after the three-day trial in December 2007. “For the legislative branch to actually set aside a court ruling is breathtaking and unsettling,” McCormick said.

McCormick, an organic chemistry professor at MU, said he was left with a distinct impression of Gates. “He’s a very smart guy who knows county and local politics well,” McCormick said. “He knew that he would be permitted to do the range. It was a level of arrogance and power meets the common man that didn’t sit well.”

‘Can’t walk away’

Most people would have moved away, as some of his former neighbors have done, instead of putting up with a sound they find maddening. For Daniel Brown it’s not that simple. His home is a symbol of his relationship with his father, a man he hardly knew growing up.

“Building this house was the one thing that gave us that bond,” Daniel Brown said. “He was my rock. I can’t walk away from this place.”

The land the Browns’ house is built on is part of a 20-acre tract that has been in his family since 1949. According to the deed, his father, Sherman Brown Sr., purchased the land for $210.

Work kept him from moving his wife and nine children to the country, Daniel Brown said. He worked as a janitor for Stephens College for 38 years.

In 1984, Daniel and his father began clearing the land and building a house — something neither of them had done before.

They finished building the house in 1985, and Daniel Brown has lived there ever since. His wife, Donna, moved in after they were married in 1998. As Sherman Brown’s health deteriorated, he told his son he was proud of everything they had accomplished but was concerned by the prospect of legal troubles with the gun club.  

“The last thing he told me before he died was he said, ‘Son, you've got a good thing out here. Don't let anybody take it from you. Hold on to it.’ ”

For now, the case rests with the appeals court, which could decide in days or months in the case of Daniel Brown et al vs. Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club. With attorneys' fees approaching $100,000, Brown said he is afraid if the court rules in favor of the gun club, the five-year legal battle would have been for nothing.

He said the shooting has become more bearable since the court enjoined the range. But he’s afraid that if the appeals court overturns the lower court’s decision, the noise will be like it was before the lawsuit.

In his decision in the lawsuit, Beetem wrote in the judgment that he had considered the economic impact the injunction would have on the gun club. He weighed the loss of revenue the club would suffer against the right of the Browns to enjoy a quiet home at certain times of day.

Brown wants it made clear that he has nothing against firearms. “I applaud their guns, I own guns,” Brown said. “I don’t care that they’re shooting. I just don’t want to have to hear it.”


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Comments

Richard Hayden May 29, 2009 | 11:49 a.m.

On balance, thousands of people have and still enjoy many types of outdoor activities safely conducted at the club, consider the neighbors with proximity to club who have voiced complaints. Personal attacks left aside who benefits the most, the myriad of people who frequent the club. A somewhat similar example is one where folks that want the country life but object to the dust from gravel roads. In some locations airport noise is much more intrusive and the continued hum from I-70 traffic is familiar, where do we draw the line, certainly not at Prairie Grove. The jury got it wrong, as evidenced by the state legislature’s vote, "It passed by a vote of 142-1."

(Report Comment)
Gerry Snapp June 1, 2009 | 11:08 a.m.

The insinutations in this column against Ralph Gates and Prairie Grove are absolutely ridiculous! So what if neighbors have loans from Mid-America? Do you really think they "fear" retribution? There is a signed contract. Why does it matter than a son of one of the neighbors was hired to work at the club? Since when is there a law against being a good neighbor?

To insinuate that testimony of other neighbors cannot be credible because of a relationship with Ralph and Mary Ann Gates in absurd, illogical, disgraceful in addition to be false.

The author clearly had an agenda.

(Report Comment)
Gary Vaught July 23, 2009 | 5:12 p.m.

This article shows an extreme bias for the Browns. As did what I witnessed of the court proceedings. What I came to understand was that Mr. Brown owned the house for years, while the gun range was in operation, with no complaints - until he got married. Then the complaint was that the club operation interfered with his day-sleeping from working OVERTIME, overnight shifts at the USPS. There's nothing wrong with working hard to get ahead, as long as you don't interfere with another's livelihood in the process. I know the club isn't the Gates' only means of income, but the normal operation - not extra activities - should not be restricted because one of their neighbors decides he needs to work overnight.

And, having lived in the county, I can assure you that the sheriff's department isn't just ignoring these reports. I don't know the county ordinances by heart, but the sheriff's department won't do anything about loud stereo music from parties, either. It's part of living outside the city - no city ordinances restricting your neighbors' behaviors.

I don't know all the ins-and-outs of real estate, but I think I'd find a way to get out of a property I was unhappy with before losing an estimated $200k in value. I've heard the pleas about not wanting to lose the home and how they'd be happy there if it weren't for the noise. But the fact is, the noise is part of the location. Kind of like me saying I'd be happy with my home if it weren't for the school kids running through my yard - it's part of the location.

If I had the money to buy the property, I'd be glad to live that close to a recreational facility I enjoyed.

(Report Comment)

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