Court's Ruling for Cheboygan Shooting Range Tackles one Element of Rural-Residential Divide

“Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin' is the life for me.
Land spreadin' out so far and wide.
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.”

-Green Acres Theme Song

People keep pushing the boundaries between rural and residential. This desire creates some interesting conflicts between the things people seek when they move out of urban areas and what they want in terms of personal comfort and needs. This month, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued a ruling that navigates these competing values.

In Cheboygan Sportsman Club v Cheboygan County, a shooting range which had been in existence since 1952, faced prosecution for violating a state statute that provided that “[a]n individual shall not hunt or discharge a firearm within 150 feet” of a residence without the permission of the occupant of the property. Over the years the shooting range had operated, a subdivision had been developed, which placed at least one home within the 150-foot range. The owner, who had purchased the property with full knowledge that the shooting range existed, found spent bullets on his property, prompting him to contact the sheriff.

In order to avoid prosecution, the shooting range filed a lawsuit, seeking to prevent its prosecution for violating the statute. The trial court ruled in favor of the shooting range, finding that the Sports Shooting Ranges Act provided the shooting range immunity from suit.

On appeal, two of the three appellate court judges disagreed with the trial court’s ruling with respect to the Sports Shooting Ranges Act, but determined that the lower court still reached the correct result. The reason that the Act did not apply to the shooting range is that it provided only limited immunity for claims based on noise or noise pollution related to the operation of shooting ranges. It said nothing about the discharging of guns themselves.

Instead, the court reasoned that while the language of the state statute limiting the discharge of firearms within 150 feet seemed to apply to all discharges, instead it applied only to hunting and not target shooting. According to the majority, the legislative purpose of the statute and its placement in the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act related to wildlife conservation.

As finding that it applied to all discharges would appear to go against what the court perceived to be the “obvious intention of the legislation,” the court found that it did not apply to the shooting club’s activities, which were unrelated to hunting. Further, determining that its decision could be seen as providing carte blanche to the non-hunting related discharge of firearms, the court indicated that reckless discharge of firearms laws would still apply.

One judge disagreed with his colleagues. His position was the court was not free to rewrite the text of the statute under the guise of “legislative intent.” The plain language of the statute barred hunting or discharging a firearm. Had the Michigan Legislature wanted to limit the effect of the statute on hunting only, it could have done so.

In support of his position, the judge referred to a 2014 opinion by the Michigan Supreme Court provided that a court cannot impose its own interpretation on a statute that is unambiguous. In his mind, “or” meant “or” and not “and.”

Whether the Michigan Supreme Court will take up this case is not known at this time. But, it does highlight an issue that many courts have struggled with – how to deal with changes in a geographic area’s use when it conflicts with previously approved activities.

When studying land use decisions in law school, one case most students read is an Arizona case titled Spur Industries, Inc. v Del E. Webb Development Co. In that case, a retirement community developer planned a development near an existing feedlot. The developer sought to enjoin the feedlots operations and despite “moving to the nuisance,” the court determined that the developer would prevail. However, the developer would be required to pay the feedlot its costs to relocate or shut down. In Michigan, “coming to the nuisance” is not a valid defense.

While the Cheboygan Sportsman Club case did not deal with “coming to the nuisance” claims (mainly because there were statutes directly on point regarding the relevant activity), it does highlight what will likely be a growing problem. Another example of a statute designed to resolve disputes is Michigan’s Right-to-Farm Act.

As civilization creeps out to previously exclusively rural areas, competing interests will find their way into the legislature and the court room. Just because you have been doing something for years at your location is no guarantee that things will remain that way into perpetuity when your neighbors start complaining.

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