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Rural Neighbors Rally to Divert Proposed Firearms Training Facility

Gates at the old BFI Waste Site still warn visitors of impending danger (photo S Jason Cole).

July 13, 2023, a group of rural neighbors, most of them strangers to one another, showed up in peaceful rural Clay County, about a mile west of Cooley Lake, for a tour of the proposed site for the Clay County gun range and training site also known as the Law Enforcement Resource Center (LERC). On a sweltering summer evening, 15 concerned citizens and several members of the Sheriff’s Department hiked through parts of the now-closed Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) Waste Systems site at 8801 Stillhouse Road. An already controversial contaminated property that was deemed “safe” by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in the late 80s.

Sheriff Will Akin hosted the event in order to answer questions from citizens who opposed the use of the site, most of whom made it clear they supported the Sheriff and his team, just not the proposed site. At the gathering, Akin shared clear and concise information about why Clay County needed such a site.

Akin said the goal is to have one dedicated place for munitions training. Including, indoor and outdoor gun ranges, a training center (classwork, etc.,) a three-story guard tower, a Simunition Building (often referred to as a “shoot house”,) and ammunition storage. He explained that having such a facility would be a coup for Clay County, as the training site is needed by other area police agencies as well as the Clay County Sheriff’s Department. When not in use by local officials, Clay County could provide it to many other agencies, renting the site and providing the professional staff as needed.

The main issues among the residents regarded quality of life, including safety issues, and worries about the moving of contaminated earth which could reignite former troubles the neighbors had with BFI. Some members of the group remembered when the contaminated site was up and running and how several families sued BFI for “cancer-type illnesses.” They said that BFI later bought the land and settled out of court. They also recalled how contaminated water would travel off of BFI property and onto their own. 

Akin explained that the “hot zone” where the contamination is located on the property is fenced off and cannot be used and the contaminants are housed deep in the ground in metal containers. He also explained that it was the acreage adjacent to the hot zone that had been proposed for use. 

After listening to their concerns and lengthy discussions, Sheriff Akin had surprisingly good news for the group. He said that, in part, because of the extreme opposition by so many residents, and because of their resilient nature, he had already begun to explore other locations for the training site determined to find another location for the training site, and had already identified 5 alternate locations. That announcement was met with grateful enthusiasm by the residents. Akin also offered to keep the neighbors updated on the future status of the LERC via an email group, which he has done.

 On July 28, 2023, Sheriff Akin emailed the residents/ landowners opposing the Stillhouse Road site stating, “I just emailed my official request to P&Z to withdraw my application for the Conditional Use Permit for the Stillhouse site. I am still working on the other sites but I am confident we’ll find one for our training facility soon.” Area resident Amy Kipping replied, “I am relieved to know that I no longer have to worry about the disruption of contaminated land impacting my family so close to home.”

Background on the LERC 

A few years ago, the idea for the project originated with the Clay County Missouri Commission, proposing the use of a site located at 8801 Stillhouse Road, Clay County, as a police training gun range and training center. This proposition is detailed in the LERC’s (Law Enforcement Resource Center) Business Plan. On July 14, 2021, the Clay County Missouri Commission officially approved Resolution (2021-173), which served as a contract with BFI Waste Systems to lease the property for the construction of the Law Enforcement Resource Center (LERC). The lease agreement spans 30 years and encompasses a total of 63.21 acres of land.

Tensions reached a climax during the Clay County Planning and Zoning meeting on July 11, 2023. Area residents were given very little time to be made aware of the potential use of the land or to research information to present at the July 11 meeting. The earliest a resident received a letter from the county was late June 2023, according to those who spoke at the meeting. Some did not receive a letter at all; some received letters on July 1, and some after.

Watch the Clay County Planning & Zoning Commission meeting where the LERC was debated at the link above.

After a brief introduction to the proposal by Kipp Jones, Director of the Planning and Zoning Department, the July 11 meeting began with Clay County Sheriff Will Akin speaking in favor of the site, noting the need for such a training center. Interestingly to many attendees, Sheriff Akin said that if such a site were proposed near his house, he’d feel the same way as the many locals who live near the BFI land.

Sheriff Akin noted that classroom training would be most of the site use (as opposed to gun practice) and that rentals to area law enforcement agencies were in the plan. While LERC would provide a training center utilizing the professional Clay County Sheriff’s Department trainers, some citizens were concerned about the growth of such a training program. The sheriff explained that Clay County would rent out the facility and provide professional trainers – a benefit for both Clay County and for many small police agencies who might not be able to afford to hire the caliber of trainers needed to train their officers, and Clay County is lucky enough to have such professionals on staff.  It was noted the site would rent locally, within Midwest, and potentially nationally. Communications had already happened with at least several local agencies.

At the meeting, any Clay County residents who wished to speak about the proposal were allowed to do so. About a dozen people spoke – some passionately, some timidly, some factually, some emotionally, and some with props – for about two hours.

An impressive amount of information was researched and brought in to share at the meeting by residents. No citizen spoke in favor of the site. Some of the major concerns that were shared included:

  • Possible contamination to officers, building crew, and area citizens from seepage/disturbing land at the BFI site, and worries of future health issues for site workers.
  • Noise/quality of life – cattle farms are nearby, and stress on cattle was a major issue with farmers.
  • Feeling bamboozled by the Clay County Missouri Commission and Clay County Planning and Zoning. One citizen traced steps detailing the creation of this plan, and how information was withheld from the public for quite a while. He also said he encountered unhelpful staff and closed offices during office hours while trying to research for the meeting.
  • According to the lease, Clay County assumes all responsibility for any risks on the property for 30 years – including any contamination to persons. BFI has no financial or any responsibility, even for contamination.
  • The property is serviced by the Fishing River Fire Department, a volunteer department, and the speaker wondered if that department would be able to handle the extraordinary issues that could occur on the site (guns and other weapons, ammunition storage, possible contamination.)
  • Loss of future Clay County tax revenue, as residents believe property value will plummet, and that the LERC site would reduce future housing developments in the area.    

Sheriff Akin had the final word, and it was powerful: he said he heard compelling arguments and he would continue to look for other sites. If they’d had this meeting earlier, he’d probably have abandoned this site long ago. He also offered a tour of the proposed site for anyone who was interested on Thursday, July 13, where this story began.

Clay County resident Tammy Anzelone summed it up this way: “It was quite a surprise to me and others in Clay County to find out less than a week before the Planning and Zoning meeting of the proposed development adjacent to the old BFI landfill. While very stressful to endure, I’m grateful for all our neighbors who came together quickly and let our concerns be known. I’m equally grateful to Sheriff Akin and the Sheriff’s Department for listening to our concerns and taking action quickly to identify alternatives for the Learning and Resource Center development project. I’m optimistic that they will obtain a site better suited for the training center they deserve. I’m personally going to become more involved in our Clay County government in the future, so I am better informed. “

Residents are encouraged to attend the Planning and Zoning meeting on Sept. 5, 2023, which is the next meeting that will hold a discussion on the LERC site. (This meeting was initially slated for August, but has been rescheduled to the Sept. date.)

Watch Excelsior Citizen for updated information on a new proposed LERC site as it becomes available.

Story by Jan Kohl. Edited by S Jason Cole.

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