While no subdivisions yet attest to sprawl, suburbanites and city transplants are increasingly calling this area of Hanover near the Louisa County line home. It's about 30 minutes from downtown Richmond, and its proximity to Interstate 64 makes it ideal for seeking the retreat of rural living within striking distance of modern amenities.
It's also a place where recreational marksmen like to unload rifles and semiautomatic handguns. Members of the Cavalier Rifle and Pistol Club, located at the end of Boondock Lane for more than 40 years, relish their freedom to shoot in the great outdoors.
The club, the only of its kind nearby and one of roughly 1,800 nationwide, has a roster of 400 who pay $200 each for membership. Names are not divulged, but Ed Coleman, the club's executive officer, says men and women of all walks of life are represented judges, doctors, politicians, ministers, caterers and day laborers. Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury John Snow frequents the club, although Coleman declines to say whether he's a member or guest. Sporting clays is among Snow's favorite pastimes, and his most recent visit stands out, Coleman recalls: "I had to tell the Secret Service to slow down on Boondock Lane."
The county is rich in the firearm tradition. In the 1700s, when Virginia's British Governor Lord Dunmore, fearing rebellion, seized the colonials' gunpowder stock in Williamsburg, it was Hanover native Patrick Henry and his militia who faced down the Brits and demanded the return of the ammunition. Known in history books as the "Gunpowder Affair," the incident was the precursor to the Second Amendment.
While the gun club's members preach history, nearby residents say they're being robbed of the comforts promised by 10-acre lots: safety, space and peace of mind.
Delina "Dee" Papit, whose property lies a little more than two miles south of Cavalier, says she lives in a constant state of anxiousness over the noise. She says it can erupt at any time, causing her heart to jump and her walls to quake. "It sounds like Baghdad over there," she says, "and it's not something you expect to hear when you walk outdoors in the country."
In the last decade, 482 houses have sprouted within a three-mile radius of the gun club. By all accounts, most residents who live in them knew the club existed nearby, deep in the forest, and opted to dwell alongside it.
But many of them say the club's grown beyond what is reasonable with deliberation and perhaps secrecy. The upset neighbors contend that the club has illegally expanded from two ranges to at least six and has transformed from a private club into a quasi-commercial operation. They say it attracts thousands of outsiders to National Rifle Association-sponsored competitions that can produce an ear-piercing 9,000 rounds a day.
Gun club members insist that the club has always functioned within its rights and that turnout to its 70 or so special events and competitions yearly has declined from a peak in the early '90s. Members say their critics are inflating the volume and duration of noise produced by regular members shooting on the ranges and the gunfire of occasional matches. They point out the club's good works in the community playing host to camp-outs for various scouting groups and 4-H Clubs, to whom they teach marksmanship.
"When I look at who's complaining," Coleman says, "I see a hard-core group of people who're objecting to us being here, who haven't lived here long enough to know what's best for the county and who want to tell other people how to live."
Such a confrontation of old and new ideas about what country life means, in this still-rural pocket of Hanover, was bound to lead to lawyers. The 18-month fight is likely to come to a head this week.
Papit, 47, wears jeans and a John Deere T-shirt with her blond hair pulled back in a twist. She stoops in her garden to admire the pesticide-free, organic results of densely planted vegetables whose yield, in late spring, is impressive. Behind the garden are neat stables where she keeps her horses. She saves animals, too, from shelters hence a white, one-eyed cat, the shepherd mutt, Sophia, and a huge lizard, all of whom reside indoors.
Papit grew up in rural Floyd County amid a thriving gun culture. She and her husband, an architect, moved from Richmond's South Side to Vontay Road in western Hanover in 1998. They cleared a section of their 25 acres and built their dream house, which looks luminous and pristine amid smaller hillside bungalows and aging farms.
Their peaceful way of life is in jeopardy, Papit says, because of the "unrelenting duration and intensity" of the gun club's escalating activities and noise in the last five years. A few years ago Papit became curious about why the gunfire seemed more pronounced and frequent. She polled neighbors but uncovered little. Then she consulted the gun club's Web site, which boasted a membership of 400 with a waiting list of two to three years. It also invited NRA members and other marksmen to participate in gun competitions, often for cash prizes.
Papit called the county around November 2004 to express her concerns. She wanted to know whether lead from spent bullets could amount to dangerous levels of soil and water contamination. She wondered how residences just 600 feet from a gun range were protected from errant bullets. But mainly she wanted to know how a gun club could grow so drastically without the necessary permits and without the county and the public knowing about it.
Other residents began seconding Papit's complaints. The county investigated. It conducted site visits of the club and found problems.
In March 2005 Hanover County cited the gun club with three counts of violating zoning ordinances pertaining to its shooting-range expansion and infractions of building and environmental codes.
But lawyers for the county and the gun club say the club hasn't paid any fines to the county and won't because the cost to become compliant exceeds the misdemeanor property fines associated with the zoning violations. In effect, the gun club received amnesty from the county because it is allowing the range to operate during the appeal and application process.
For Papit, a marketing consultant who works from home, a growing frustration with jolting gunfire has turned to dismay. She resents that the county did not put the club through the same tedious permit process she and other neighbors say they must navigate in order to build onto or make changes to their properties.
She formed a citizen's group called Respect Our Rights to lobby local officials to crack down on Cavalier. She says about 40 residents who live within a three-mile radius of the club are avid members.
She has a DVD at the ready for anyone who will watch. On it are video clips recorded on random days, she says, that demonstrate the rapid-fire gunplay heard at three different households up to 1,000 feet from the club on Hopeful Road in Hopeful Hills all northeast of Cavalier where some ranges are aimed. The clips make the neighborhood sound disturbingly like a war zone. Gunfire that pops like fireworks or booms like cannons seems to stretch for minutes without relief.
"The gun club controls when we have peace and when we don't have peace," Papit says. Yet it's the residents, she says, who contribute exponentially more in taxes than the club, whose mostly far-flung members come from outside the county.
The gun club's Coleman says he's been consumed with the zoning saga for the better part of two years. Coleman, 66, is a contractor and a builder of horse barns and arenas. He lives a half-mile from the club, just over the Louisa County line. On a recent day his Subaru hatchback is stuffed with work supplies as he pulls up outside the crude electric gate to Cavalier.
A posted sign reads: Entering shooting club. Live fire. Exercise caution.
It's the only warning sign. No fence demarcates the club.
Before entering, Coleman gestures to a crew of men working to build something near a modest house adjacent to the club's property. Coleman explains that Cavalier is paying to build a tractor shed for the woman who lives there because her husband is chronically ill. It's the kind of stewardship the club practices, he says.
The club's also kept valuable land safe from bulldozers, he says. "All the people on this road know if we weren't here it'd be a subdivision," Coleman says of the residents on Boondock Lane. "They all support us." He shows copies of letters as proof.
In 1959, Frank Hargrove Sr. now Delegate Frank Hargrove, who represents Hanover sold 102.4 acres of land to then-state Sen. Leslie D. Campbell, according to county property records. Campbell got a special-use permit for the property in 1965, allowing it to be used as a recreational facility for "a rifle range, fishing, boating and other outdoor recreation" by the Cavalier Rifle and Pistol Club.
The club constructed two shooting ranges one for rifles and shotguns, another for pistols. Nearby residents such as Coleman joined the club to practice marksmanship, especially out of hunting season, and to fish and socialize.
Coleman has been a member since 1975. Until recently, he was a revered champion of pistol matches. But he's given up firing on the ranges in order to help preserve them. His shoulder is a bit spent, too, he adds. He still revels in an occasional trip to Colorado to hunt elk, but apart from that he doesn't shoot.
The club's purpose has always been to teach and promote marksmanship, he says. No gun permits are required to shoot there, no guns are sold there or anything else and the only rules are those posted by the club. Through the years, Coleman's taught plenty of 10-year-old girls how to properly shoot and handle a rifle, he says, and nothing compares to the look of accomplishment on their faces when they hit the target. He's coached Olympic hopefuls and future sharpshooters in the military. He helped assuage the fears of a prosecutor, worried about the release of a criminal she'd put away, by teaching her how to draw and shoot a pistol in 1.7 seconds.
In 1974, the county changed its rules regarding shooting ranges, requiring a special-exemption permit rather than a special-use permit. Lawyers are arguing whether this is merely a technicality. The county also mandated that recreational facilities get building permits for any new structures, expansions or land-use variances.
Because it had a special-use permit with no restrictions dated 1965, Cavalier assumed it was essentially grandfathered and free from the new rules.
Recognizing a growth spurt in the mid-1980s, Coleman says, the club began purchasing whatever properties it could surrounding its original 102 acres namely, he says, to provide a better buffer zone for nearby residents.
Today the club owns 436 acres and has added ranges. There's one with moving targets, one specially designed for law-enforcement officers, one for small-bore and black-powder rifles and pistols and one for action-pistol competitions. There are two for sporting clays which shooters liken to golf with a shotgun, whereby pseudo hunters move along a course and fire at clay decoys that mimic ducks, doves and rabbits. There's also a 500-yard range with separate 200-yard and 300-yard firing lines, in which high-powered rifles and fully automatic assault weapons can be used.
In total there are six ranges, with 11 places to shoot most any kind of gun expelling bullets that could travel unstopped anywhere from one to three miles. Most of the bullets stop in the berms, thick banks of earth that are at least 8 feet high on the sides and lie behind the ranges all except the 500-yard range, which is missing one side berm. Behind the targets, the berms are at least 27 feet high.
According to all those interviewed, there's been no documented incident during the club's 40 years in which a bullet went astray and did damage.
Don Coats thought he knew what he was getting when he moved here two-and-a-half years ago. A 40-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service, Coats says one of the perks of his retirement as postmaster of Virginia Beach was that the government paid to relocate him. He chose Hopeful Road.
"I bought my home with full knowledge that the gun club existed," he says, having queried the postmaster in Hanover as well as the neighbors. He heard sporadic gunfire but figured that having lived near Langley Air Force Base, the sound of bullets was nothing compared with jet engines. Now he says the pervasive gunfire near his house has become "borderline ridiculous."
Coats has a long gray biker's beard and seems to unwind and get wound up with equal ease. Tattoos of exotic women lend his forearms a waxy sheen. He ventures across the street on a recent afternoon to help his neighbor Anthony Rhoades repair his tractor.
Even before a reporter arrives, the two say, the gun club was the topic of conversation. Rhoades' wife, Trish, pulls up a chair, too, beneath a tent in the yard next to a fenced tract where horses graze and swat flies in the sun.
"I'm not anti-gun," Coats says. "I spent three tours in Vietnam. But I do take great exception to the county granting Cavalier amnesty at the expense of every other resident and taxpayer."
Coats says he's fortunate that he can always move if things get too bad. As it is, he says, "If we had young children, living here wouldn't be an option."
Papit's citizens' group says this is a fight over property rights, not gun rights. It doesn't want to shut down the club, but rather to curb its capacity. It argues that a club the size and scope of Cavalier is increasingly incompatible with the neighborhood.
"Hanover is becoming a sophisticated county. So things do change," Papit says. "There was probably a time when you could keep chickens in the Fan."
For the last year and a half the members of Respect Our Rights have pressed the county with an array of concerns about the club. They've also chastised their representative on the county's board of supervisors, John Gordon Jr., for not reacting to the issue quickly enough.
Supervisor Gordon says he received no complaints about the club until two years ago, when he was first contacted by Papit. He says the process is working as it should and sees no reason to act too quickly or to change zoning laws in this case.
Since the county issued its notice of violations to Cavalier in March 2005, the county and the gun club have hired various consultants to produce safety and environmental reports. The findings indicate the soil and water samples did not have significant levels of lead. It found, too, that the ranges are adequately safe but should be improved.
"Hanover is still 80 percent rural," Gordon says. "I see nothing that would force us to change compliances. This range will be safe if and when the recommendations [of the county's planning department] are approved."
On June 14 the seven-member Board of Supervisors is scheduled to decide whether to grant the gun club a special exception and conditional use permit. That would allow the club to continue operating on all its ranges by complying with a host of county-prescribed changes.
The planning commission has proposed that the club close on Sundays a move applauded by the neighbors. "It's unimaginable to think you can't have a Sunday in peace. If you don't live here, spend one in Hopeful Hills and you'll never come back again," Coats exclaims.
The planning commission also wants to ban the firing of automatic weapons and the consumption of alcohol in the club's parking lots.
Trish Rhoades and her husband, Anthony a self-described ex-military man who once worked on an Army gun range say they can't understand why the county seems to apply a double standard when it comes to property changes.
For the last eight years, the Rhoadeses say they've spent thousands of dollars and countless time over a barn they built on their property. The county says it doesn't conform to code. Meanwhile, they say, the gun club is open despite numerous violations.
"This whole situation is turning a hand-in-hand community into a combative community," Coats says.
Yet it has brought some members of the community together to fight a common enemy, Papit says the only upside to the ordeal. She didn't know her neighbors before the conflict with the gun club, she says. "I moved out here with the idea that a rural way of life meant a rural community," she says. "If there's a silver lining in a very dark cloud, it's that we've become friends and created that community."
"We're trying to find that magic middle ground that will make everybody happy," Hanover County Attorney Sterling Rives III says.
If that doesn't happen, counters D. Brennan Keene, a partner with McGuireWoods who represents Cavalier, "the club could pretty much realistically do everything it does now on its two original ranges."
Cavalier Rifle and Pistol Club isn't as fancy as it might sound. There's no clubhouse where old-timers while away the afternoon sipping Scotch and telling yarns. There's no electricity or running water, just a well. The only restroom is a portable john. Cavalier appears little more than a big campsite. Mature oaks, pines and poplars abound, interrupted by a huge lake. Everything beyond what the eye can see is forest, Coleman says, vast acreage that will remain unscathed as a nature conservation area.
"Since we bought the land we've never cut any timber because it provides a buffer," he says. "What changed between us and the neighbors is that some big tracts of timber got cut down a few years ago and it altered the dynamic of the sound" coming off the firing ranges. He doesn't know who cut the trees or exactly where they once were, only that he figures the loud and constant noise prompted people to start complaining.
Passing by range No. 2, the small-bore and black-powder range, Coleman spies Ray Lewis, another 30-year member. Lewis is a retired electrician with Philip Morris who resides in Chesterfield County and has two sons who grew up shooting at Cavalier. He's the perfect example of a typical member, Coleman says.
A covered-roof area and waist-high wooden tables accompany a few of the ranges. Positioned at No. 2, Lewis wears protective glasses and ear guards. He's practicing for a pistol match at Quantico, he says.
Lewis explains the routine of a match in which competitors have 10 minutes to fire 10 shots. He looks through the scope of his .22-caliber IZH pistol, a gun made in Russia that cost roughly $400, and fires pap at the target 50 yards away. He'll switch to his .308 Winchester for the competition at Quantico.
Between Lewis' shots, the two men reminisce. "Both my grandkids caught their first fish in this lake, shot their first bullets here, too," Coleman says.
The men are put off by the nature of the citizens' group people who've never stepped foot on the range. "Nobody came to us in the beginning and said it's too loud," Coleman says. "We never heard a word."
Instead, he says, "they've kind of used this Sierra Club approach," by first approaching county officials and the Department of Environmental Quality and calling for reports and investigations. "To say that they're inundated with this from light to light, seven days, is dishonest," he says.
The club has spent $4,000 on a sound test and another $4,000 on a water test, he says. Both tests came back negative for lead contamination despite bullet shells and casings so plentiful they line the sides of ranges.
The club has hired a shooting range designer to reconfigure some of the ranges so they produce less noise. The club has also moved some Sunday events to Saturdays, he says, and it plans to do more. He estimates the cost for improvements at $1.2 million.
"We've offered a lot of things that are going to be very expensive to try to accommodate them," he says of the upset neighbors. "But it doesn't seem like enough for them."
As for closing on Sundays, Coleman says, the club isn't about to budge. Likewise, it's not going to cap its number of members. Lastly, the planning commission's proposal that the club limit its nighttime hours to one weekday evening simply won't fly.
The reality may be that in today's culture, a shooting range is itself a kind of target. "We're the hog farmer or the airport or the racetrack," Coleman says, in that however loud or tucked away from cities and towns they may be, people move toward them. Perhaps that's as much of a constant as the perception of the gun club.
He can't deny that there's a bit of a good ol' boy mentality that runs through Cavalier's woods. "We don't want to infringe and make our neighbors' lives unbearable," Coleman says. "But most of the people who've moved here in recent years were expecting something that doesn't exist and wasn't here to begin with." S