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Garage-to-gun business irks neighbors in Weare

WEARE - A standing-room-only crowd packed a Weare Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting to weigh in on whether Michael Stevens' home-based gun shop is the kind of business that should exist in a residential neighborhood.

Michael Stevens, a retired Marine, ran an auto-repair shop out of his garage at 161 Thorndike Road before 2006, but decided to convert the business to a gun shop called Classic Armorer. He repairs a variety of weapons and has a shooting range in the back of the property. Chip Meany, the town's land-use officer, granted Stevens permission to run the shop without requiring a site-plan review. Meany's opinion is that gun repair or car repair have essentially the same impact on the neighborhood.

While many of the neighbors who complained about the business Tuesday night spoke about parking on the road and the presence of armed men and women coming out of the shop at all hours of the day, the shooting range prompted the most complaints.

Neighbors on Thorndike Road are upset that Stevens has operated the range since 2010, offering shooting lessons to kids.

Stevens' attorney, Tony Soltani, told the zoning board the shooting range, which the lawyer himself has frequented, "probably crossed the line."

The town filed a cease-and-desist order against Stevens, effectively shutting down the commercial aspect of the range, a move Soltani said he agreed with. He said the range is now private and is ancillary to the work Stevens does at the shop. He said the gunsmith needs to test the weapons he's repairing.

But the testing can be extensive. One neighbor, Joseph Stenho, counted the number of rounds shot at the range during various months and recorded numbers as high as 540 shots on a single day in September.

Laura Kobylis, who has two small children and lives directly across the street from Stevens, said that nap time, family time and parties are often interrupted by the incessant sound of gunshots.

"We try to have birthday parties and as soon as the balloons go up on the mailbox, the shooting starts," she said. "It's a nuisance and doesn't belong in a residential area where people are trying to live."

But Zoning Board Chair Jack Dearborn, who said he frequents the gun shop, said the board has no jurisdiction over the noise from the shooting range.

"That's a civil issue, an enforcement issue," Dearborn said. "We can't do anything about the noise."

The only issue the board can really consider is if Meany made the correct decision in allowing the auto-repair shop to morph into the gun shop, and if the gun shop is a reasonable use for a home-based business.

Attorney Olivier Sakellarious, who represents abutter Al Provost, argued that home-based businesses in residential zones "are quiet, aren't dangerous, and don't disrupt the neighborhood."

"This is far from a residential business," Sakellarious said, adding the business targets the neighborhood for crime because "there are so many guns coming in and out of the shop."

But Soltani said it's an "elitist view" that guns don't belong in a neighborhood business. The zoning board is expected to rule at their next meeting April 2.

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