Judge’s ruling reinstates gun club’s operating permit

April 24, 2017
Iron City Armory owner Jason Doetzer pleads his case during a 2016 hearing before Robinson Township officials. - Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Iron City Armory LLC, doing business as Iron City Gun Club, is permitted to operate in Robinson Township as of last Friday.

After hearing testimony in December, Washington County President Judge Katherine B. Emery decided in favor of Iron City Armory of 920 King Road, Bulger, noting Robinson Township Zoning Officer Mark Dorsey issued the business a zoning permit last April as long as members had passed both a firearms safety class and a Pennsylvania Instate Check System background test.

The township at that time prohibited sales, gun testing, rentals or other commercial endeavors and “activities related to any federal firearms license.”

With its permit granted, the principal owner, Jason Doetzer, completed substantial renovations and opened as a gun club in May of last year.

The township issued a notice of violation and cease and desist order to the club June 2. An undercover operation run by the McDonald police department in July discovered Iron City was selling ammunition and targets.

Several neighbors, concerned about noise and their safety, objected to having a shooting range near their homes and filed a challenge to the zoning permit. The township zoning hearing board Aug. 29 sided with the neighbors, saying shooting ranges and related facilities are not allowed to operate in what the township labels an Interchange Business Development district because of the toll road known locally as the Southern Beltway.

Doetzer took the township to court last fall, and in a brief the zoning hearing board later submitted to the court, it conceded noncommercial gun clubs and shooting ranges are allowed to operate in the Interchange Business Development district. On this basis, the judge reversed the Aug. 29 decision of the zoning hearing board.

Emery found important findings of fact and conclusions of law were not supported by evidence and the zoning hearing board committed legal errors in revoking the gun club’s permit.

The judge found no evidence Iron City was engaging in gun testing or gun rentals. The zoning hearing board cited an advertisement on Iron City’s website referring to gun rentals, but that posting was incorrect.

Doetzer “testified that it was his intention to attempt to rent guns at that location if he was able to obtain a variance on the permit, but no rentals were taking place at the time the revocation occurred,” Emery noted. “Testimony by the police officers did not support a finding that any gun testing or gun rentals occurred” at the 300-acre property. … “It is not a violation of the permit conditions to apply for a federal firearms license; it is a violation to sell or rent guns.”

The judge cited testimony at the hearing that more than 90 percent of Iron City’s revenue derives from memberships to the gun club, to which the township and zoning hearing board do not object on the basis of commercial activity. Emery found sale of bottled water and targets is, if anything, a minimal violation that does not warrant the revocation of a zoning permit.

The sale of ammunition could rise above a minimal violation “if the sales were substantial and prolonged, but given the short time the club was in operation prior to the revocation of the permit,” the court found the sale of ammunition a minor issue. But the judge cautioned, “The court would advise Iron City to cease all future ammunition sales.”

In background information, Emery wrote the property had been called the Greater Pittsburgh Gun Club since 1968. It ceased to operate in 2008 when the owners, Joseph Freund and his sister, Constance Freund, were indicted and convicted of criminal activity and were no longer permitted to possess, sell or use firearms. Doetzer reached an agreement with the Freunds in 2016 to lease the premises with an option to purchase.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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