McHenry County auditor, fed-up neighbors ask for shooting ordinance over backyard shooting ranges

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McHenry County Auditor Pam Palmer left her rural Union home to the sound of neighbors shooting, as they had done the three previous weekends.

Palmer and her husband came home to a hole from a .45-caliber round in the side of her home and two through interior walls – one of them not too far from her father, who is recovering from open-heart surgery.

North of her in rural Harvard, residents for years have complained about the noise from a neighbor who built a gun range in his backyard. His land, just east of the Brookdale Conservation Area, abuts a new trail for horse riders – but the stretch of it behind his home remains closed, out of concern by the McHenry County Conservation District that a horse or a rider accidentally could be shot.

The neighbors had previously approached the County Board to ask for a solution. When they heard that Palmer would be asking the board to resurrect an ordinance that would curtail shooting in more populated residential areas, they jumped on board and joined forces.

“I was just flabbergasted when it happened. It’s something you worry about – when you hear gunshots, someone getting hit,” Palmer said. “Flabbergasted and then just anger that something came into my house.”

Neighbors along Paulson and Streit roads have been dealing with what they call the Brinkman range for the past six years since resident Dennis Brinkman built it. Last month on Armed Forces Day, neighbor Jim Lee said he counted more than 1,900 shots fired over nine hours. Brinkman uses the range for himself as well as for hosting events.

The shooting at the Brinkman range is unrelated to the incident at Palmer's home.

Lee, like most of the neighbors who have gone public, said they own guns and shoot them, and stressed that this is about their rural quality of life.

“We all have guns. All the neighbors have guns. We’re Second Amendment people, as all of you are,” he told the County Board earlier this month. “We want some common sense here before someone gets shot.”

Brinkman said he has significantly curtailed his shooting on his 5-acre property in recent years, and that the Armed Forces Day tribute is now his one sole annual event. He said that shooting on other properties to his south, as well as on the sheriff’s office range several miles to the east, is now being attributed to him.

“I have cut down a lot on my shooting to appease the neighbors. They seem to think that anyone shooting within a mile of here is me,” Brinkman said.

Most municipalities have ordinances forbidding the discharge of a firearm except at approved ranges or in self-defense. But in unincorporated McHenry County, where lot sizes tend to be much larger, the County Board could be tasked with a delicate dance of crafting an ordinance that will address the issue without unduly restricting a specifically protected constitutional right.

A proposed ordinance in 2014, inspired by the Brinkman range and other complaints to a lesser extent, would have restricted discharge of firearms except for hunting and self-defense, within residential areas, which state law defines for firearm purposes as within 300 yards of at least three single- or multi-family residences. While it cleared the Natural and Environmental Resources Committee, it stopped in the Law and Justice Committee.

Besides concerns of overkill – the draft ordinance included BB and paintball guns – committee members decided to table the ordinance, with the promise of resurrecting it should existing regulatory remedies through the planning and zoning departments fail. However, the county’s existing powers can crack down on Brinkman and other frequent shooters only if they can prove they are running a business without the proper zoning and permits.

Board member Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, said the time has come to revisit the ordinance, and that she is constantly receiving complaints about nuisance shooting, and that Palmer is not the only resident who has had a bullet punch into their home. McCann is one of four members who represent District 6, which covers the county’s rural western half.

“It’s a health and safety issue. Many people have guns. The problem is excessive use in residential neighborhoods,” McCann said.

Tom Dougherty has lived near the conservation area for 40 years, and said something has to be done. A self-described gun enthusiast, he said the Brinkman shooting has gone on long enough. His family for the past 20 years has managed a neighboring Girl Scout campsite, and he said frequent weekend shooting diminishes campers’ experience.

Dougherty said the county’s rural half “doesn’t get squat representation” on the County Board. His criticism was not restricted to shooting – he said board members need to push for stricter adherence to rules to dissuade what he called an attitude that people can come west of Route 47 and do whatever they please.

“This is not the place. Because of the public ground around it, number one. Number two, it doesn’t fit the area. There are many places where you can shoot, have fun, and it’s zoned. Why do we need to do it on a private piece of property and disrupt everyone’s quality of life?” Dougherty said.

Brinkman said he has gone to great lengths not to disrupt his neighbors’ lives. As for the MCCD’s decision to close the trail, Brinkman said his range faces downhill and contains a very large berm that would prevent anyone from getting shot. He said neither he nor his guests would ever use the range if a rider was on the trail or if a farmer was working the field behind it.

“We live in a free country. I’m not trying to be a nuisance,” he said.