HINSDALE — A proposal to use the Hinsdale Police Department shooting range as training grounds for the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has fallen through after local opposition, according to the plant’s parent company.
In a statement, the parent company, Entergy Corp., said it will no longer pursue the partnership with the police department, citing concerns raised by Hinsdale citizens at a series of hearings beginning in May.
However, the range is not closed for good — Police Chief Todd Faulkner is working on rewriting an ordinance that would bar the public from using the range but allow police to train there, he said Friday. A draft of that ordinance is set to come before a public hearing Aug. 14, Faulkner added.
The initial agreement between the power plant and the police department had come out of a seeming mutual opportunity. Entergy Corp. had been looking for a local range to train its security employees for the nuclear power plant, based in Vernon, Vt.
And the Hinsdale Police Department was searching for a solution to its own firearms training requirements — an indoor shooting range that it had been renting closed in late 2016, leaving the department without a local place to train.
The police department had stopped using the outdoor range — at the end of River Road — earlier in 2016, after it fell into disrepair and became riddled with sinkholes. Without a local option for training, the department has had to pay overtime and mileage for new recruits to use the shooting range in Keene, Faulkner said in May.
This spring, the police department and the power company were in the process of striking a financial deal: Entergy would pay for the necessary renovations to reopen the outdoor range, in exchange for use of the range by its employees. That agreement would require an ordinance change, which would need to be approved by the board of selectmen. The planned renovations included improved safety features by increasing berm sizes to capture stray bullets.
But the deal quickly sparked local concern. At a hearing May 1, residents spoke against the noise they predicted would be created by the company’s security contractors — who number 81 — using the range. Others raised safety concerns pertaining to pedestrians using a nearby trail, and potential environmental threats to soil and migratory bird patterns.
Some residents’ gripes came from experience: In April, Hinsdale selectmen had temporarily opened the range to employees of the nuclear company as a trial. Residents at the meeting said the gun bursts heard during that trial period had been overwhelming; a high school teacher said the noise encroached on recess time, while a Vietnam veteran said it had set off his PTSD.
At the time, Entergy Corp. declined to comment on the concerns.
But in response to a Sentinel query this week, Entergy said it had withdrawn from the proposed partnership, citing the concerns raised at that hearing. A spokeswoman, Solange DeSantis, said the company had found another shooting range for training. In a statement, DeSantis declined to further specify the range’s location, citing privacy considerations related to security.
In response to follow up queries, Joseph R. Lynch, senior government affairs manager at Entergy, said the company had made the decision to withdraw unilaterally, but declined to clarify when it did so.
In comments after the hearing in May, Faulkner said he understood the concerns about noise, but pointed out that part of the planned renovations would go toward noise reduction measures, such as increasing the size of the berms surrounding the range.
And he said the need for the range was practical and that sending officers to Keene would cost $9,500 a year, citing department calculations. Some residents at the meeting argued that that cost estimate was minor and worth bearing.
It is unclear whether and when the range might be re-opened to the public. The latest draft ordinance would allow only Hinsdale police and participating departments to use the facilities, Faulkner said, and it would require officers to use silencers on their weapons to reduce noise.
The range would be used only for training events, which happen about four times a year, according to Faulkner.
Additionally, the repairs, originally set to be financed by Entergy, will now be paid for by the town, said Faulkner, who added that he didn’t know what the ultimate cost will be.
The selectmen are planning to revisit whether to reopen the range to the public next year, according to Faulkner. Steve Diorio, chairman of the board of selectmen, confirmed that time table and said selectmen have not made up their minds yet.
Faulkner said he is satisfied with the result, but said he will continue to press the board to allow public use of the range.
“I think it’s a safe location for people to utilize their weapons systems ...” he said. “It saves them from going off in the woods and shooting them off in their backyards.”
But regardless of the outcome, at least one resident was happy with the canceled agreement with Entergy.
Cathy Johnson, a vocal critic of the agreement, said the lack of involvement by the power plant company represents acceptable progress.
Johnson, who in May presented selectmen with a petition of 100 signatures in opposition, said she’s against public use of the range but would be satisfied with the present ordinance draft.
“I’m happy with it right now, with the police department being able to use it,” she said. “I’m not against the police department — I certainly want them to be able to use it.”
But just in case, Johnson added, she’ll be at the Aug. 14 meeting.