Torresdale neighbors complain about shooting range

Close to home: The shooting range in the former Torresdale-Frankford Country Club (marked with an X) is within 1,000 feet of homes, a playground, baseball fields and John Hancock Elemenatry School. A decibel meter was used to measure shotgun blasts heard from the club, which were above the maximum levels dictated by city ordinance. SOURCE: GOOGLE EARTH

Ken Law is in the construction business and he works a lot of weekends, almost every weekend in fact.

So he was having a hard time believing it last October when his wife Oona and their neighbors started telling him about the shotgun blasts that were emanating from the century-old, private golf club near their West Torresdale homes each Sunday. Then in February, Law finally took a day off. And he heard the loud booms firsthand.

“It was ten in the morning and they started shooting. I’m sitting right there in the living room having a cup of coffee, reading the paper and I said to Oona, ‘Is this what you were talking about?’ And she said, ‘Yeah!’ ”

Law grabbed a video camera, sat down on his patio and started recording the activity, with sound. He posted the 9-minute, 23-second, clip on YouTube on Feb. 19. It was an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning in their suburban-like neighborhood, except for the relentless bangs originating on the former Torresdale-Frankford Country Club at 9800 Frankford Ave., which the Union League of Philadelphia took over in 2014.

One after another, the blasts heard on the video drown out chirping birds and seemingly trigger the impassioned barking of neighbors’ dogs. At the six-minute mark, the first cars pass his house — two vehicles in quick succession. A few seconds later, a plane can be heard overhead.

At the eight-minute mark, a third car passes, right about the time the shooting seems to subside for the moment. Law noted on his YouTube post that he counted 154 individual blasts in a session that lasted about eight minutes. Typically, the salvos will continue intermittently well into the afternoon.

The Northeast Times visited Law’s home on March 6 and heard the same type of ruckus. Sitting at his dining room table with Oona and neighbor Tom Kilfeather, the shots were sharply audible on a crisp late winter day, even with Law’s windows closed. Soon, an inspector from the city’s Air Management Services, a branch of the Health Department, arrived with a decibel meter. The readings from inside the house, with the windows opened, were well above the maximum levels dictated by city ordinance.

Under city law, persistent noises may not be more than five decibels above the typical background noise for a given location. In an earlier reading taken on Feb. 7, an inspector measured the background noise at Law’s house at 38 to 42 decibels. The gunshots ranged from a low level of 53 to 55 decibels to a high of 63 to 68 decibels, Law said. That’s the same basic range as piano playing, a noisy restaurant or a busy street. And Law’s home is more than 2,300 feet from the shooting range, based on a Google Maps measurement. Some homes, as well as the basketball courts and ballfields at Mitchell Playground, are only about 800 feet from Ground Zero.

Noise inspectors returned to the neighborhood at Law’s request on Feb. 21 and 28, as well as the March 6 visit. The results were similar each time.

“They said after three violations, it goes to enforcement,” Oona Law said.

In the meantime, the Laws and some neighbors have been reorganizing the dormant West Torresdale Civic Association. Neighbors are encouraged to attend a WTCA planning meeting on April 11 at the 8th Police District at 6:30 p.m. City Councilman Brian O’Neill, at-large Council members, state Rep. Martina White and state Sen. John Sabatina have also been invited to attend.

Since February, the neighbors have been trying to get someone, anyone, in authority to help them put a stop to the shooting. But so far, they haven’t had much success. Law said that he has lived in the neighborhood since 1999, but never heard shooting like this until last fall.

The first calls Law and his wife made were to the Union League.

“They were very polite at first. They said they were ‘grandfathered’ into this (shooting) program,” Ken Law said.

Soon, however, the club official stopped answering questions and referred them to a manager. The Laws say they left messages for that person, but did not get a reply.

“The club is saying they’ve been doing it for years. (But) we know from personal experience that we’ve never heard shooting since we’ve been here,” Law said.

Similarly, a call-taker at the Torresdale site referred a Times reporter to a spokesperson based at the 254-year-old Union League’s Center City headquarters. That club official has not returned repeated messages requesting comment.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection told the Times that the shooting range is legal as far as the city is concerned. In a written explanation, L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss stated that although the land is zoned residential, the country club use predates the zoning designation and indeed is “grandfathered.” Even more central to the issue is that the department considers the shooting range as “a customarily incidental use — an activity that customarily takes place at country clubs, and as such does not require a separate permit or specific permission.”

Even if it’s demonstrated that shooting was not taking place on the property for a period of time, the customarily incidental use does not lapse as a zoning variance might, Guss said.

The Times subsequently requested the spokeswoman to cite any other examples of country clubs within the city that conduct similar outdoor shooting on site. The newspaper did not receive a reply in time for inclusion in this article.

The Times has obtained a document that appears to be the country club’s schedule of competitive trap-shooting matches and “open shoot” dates. The listing includes generally weekly events from last Nov. 8 through March 20 and names other Philadelphia-area clubs. Among 19 events, 15 were to be hosted by the Union League at Torresdale. The other host clubs are in Gladwyne, Montgomery County; Newtown Square, Delaware County; and Paoli, Chester County. None are within L&I’s jurisdiction.

Guss also addressed the excessive noise issue by citing a state statute that seemingly grants shooting facilities immunity from local noise ordinances under certain conditions. In short, the state law states that shooting ranges are not subject to noise laws that were enacted after the construction of the range.

But Law argues that the shooting range now in use is different from the one that the old Torresdale-Frankford club would have used.

An overhead Google Maps image of the club photographed in October 2011 shows the old configuration. There are two arcs in the ground where shooters would stand while aiming east across a large field of grass toward Frankford Avenue. There are also two box structures that appear to be target launching devices. But a more recent overhead photo of the property accessible on the city’s official website shows the two arcs in the same spot, but facing north toward woods and the Byberry Creek. The Laws and their neighbors live on the other side of the woods.

“The bottom line is it’s about the peaceful enjoyment of our homes,” Ken Law said. ••