Bushmaster weapons testing irks Windham neighbors

Weary of living with the rat-a-tat noise from rifle tests, neighbors of Bushmaster Firearms in North Windham are trying to figure out a way to make it stop.

But the company, one of the region’s large employers, said the outdoor weapons testing is necessary for its business, and follows all local and state laws.

Last week, a half-dozen homeowners on both sides of Route 302 near the firearms manufacturer descended on the Windham Town Council to see what could be done about the noise, which can occur anytime between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., five days a week, and sometimes on weekends.

With no ordinance in place governing weapons testing in the town, the council and town employees have advised the residents to draft an ordinance that would act as a starting place for further discussion on the matter.

The noise emanating from Bushmaster’s rifle range, situated in the Grondin gravel pit off Enterprise Drive, wasn’t an issue a year or so ago, according to Mary Jo York, who has been trying to sell a home at 33 Chimera Hill Road, located behind the pit. Despite a stretch of woods between the shooting range and the home, the noise resembles that of a battlefield, York said.

“I would expect Bushmaster to be a good neighbor,” York said. “It’s not like they can’t afford to build some sort of indoor facility, rather than making all our properties worthless.”

York, a former real estate agent, has been trying to sell her home and had a prospective buyer who came for a home inspection recently. While in the backyard, the clients heard the machine gun noise.

“The woman just broke down,” York said. “She was so excited about the home, but she said she just couldn’t live with that (noise).”

York’s former husband, Cliff York, who also lives in the area, is likewise upset with Bushmaster’s testing.

“I’ve been trying to sell a 2-acre lot for over a year and as soon as people hear that noise, they’re gone,” he said.

Earlier this month, Cliff York got so upset he spent a Saturday going door-to-door collecting signatures for a petition he submitted to the council last Tuesday. He said 25 residents from Chimera Hill Road, Hillcrest Estates, Anglers Road, Woodland Road and Mt. Hunger Shore Road signed the letter requesting the town take action to stop the noise.

Aside from the noise, York said he is also concerned with the lead bullets that are being shot into the ground at the Grondin Pit. He wonders if area wells and waterways would be affected.

Robert Grondin, patriarch of the R.J. Grondin company and resident of Raymond, has owned the pit off Enterprise Drive for 40 years. In that time, he has allowed Maine State Police, Windham police and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office to test their weapons in the pit. He says no one is complaining about the noise except for the residents, whom he said “ought to be working rather than home during the day. Then they wouldn’t hear anything.”

Grondin allows hunting in the pit as well, and he is currently extracting gravel and crushing rock there. He leases a 100-yard-square section to Bushmaster “way out back” so they can test their weapons, he said. Embankments have been erected around the perimeter.

Bushmaster Firearms, which is owned by Cerberus International, a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund that owns various companies around the world and bought Bushmaster from Windham native Richard Dyke four years ago, declined to comment on the matter.

Rick McDougold, manager of the Windham Business Park on Route 302 where Bushmaster is located, discussed the residents’ concerns with company executives last Friday and spoke to the Lakes Region Weekly on behalf of the company.

McDougold said Bushmaster is at the tail end of a large gun order from an “overseas government” he declined to specify. He said the current 10,000-gun order should be completed “Friday or Monday” after nine months of testing. The contract required each weapon to be tested outside, McDougold said.

And while the contract’s completion bodes well in the short term for area residents, nothing’s to stop Bushmaster from outside testing should future orders require it, McDougold said.

“They checked with the town and were told there was no noise ordinance,” he said. “They also checked with the EPA about the bullets and received approvals for that. They are trying to be as accommodating as they can. Unfortunately, it’s part of the business.”

McDougold said the noise is a dilemma since Bushmaster is one of the Lakes Region’s biggest and most successful employers. The guns are built in Windham, have “Windham, ME” stamped into the barrel stocks of each gun, and with the manufacturing economy in Maine sputtering, each company is precious, McDougold said.

“The other important thing here is that Bushmaster employs over 100 people who live in Windham or to the west,” he said. “Windham is hurting for business, and Bushmaster is a good local business.”

According to Tax Assessor David Sawyer, Bushmaster owns six buildings and 24 acres in Windham. Each year, the company pays $29,300 in real estate taxes and $5,300 in personal property taxes.

Windham’s economic development director, Tom Bartell, said the situation is a legitimate concern that affects the neighbors’ quality of life.

“What we have to do is find a solution to the problem that works for the residents and the business,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to regulate Bushmaster out of Windham, so that’s going to be a real issue.”

Bartell, like some of the neighbors, posed an indoor range as a possible solution. “We have to strike a balance here,” he said. “Both sides have legitimate concerns. It’s similar to the (Busque) quarry on Nash Road. We just need to find some accommodation.”

R.J. Grondin’s 800-acre gravel pit off Enterprise Drive in North Windham has become the home of several companies. It also serves as a test firing range for Bushmaster Firearms. Area residents have petitioned the Windham Town Council to do something about the constant noise, which they argue is prohibiting home sales and destroying their quality of life. (Staff photo by John Balentine)