STANDISH — The Town Council voted Tuesday against a lease proposal from the Standish Fish and Game Club, potentially jeopardizing a plan for an outdoor sporting facility, including a shooting range, that’s been in the works since 2015.
“I am not going to speak for my members, but I have a strong suspicion that we are not going to pursue that property going forward,” Greg Sirpis, president of the Fish and Game Club and also vice chairman of the Town Council, said Wednesday.
Sirpis’ dual roles sparked controversy Tuesday night, when his council colleagues voted to recuse him from speaking as a councilor because of his involvement with the Fish and Game Club. Sirpis initially refused to accept the recusal vote, which caused friction with other council members.
Sirpis conceded once Town Manager Gordy Billington clarified that the town attorney had advised that Sirpis’ two roles did give the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The Fish and Game Club had proposed building an outdoor sporting facility on town-owned land in the Steep Falls area of town. Under a 25-year lease, the club would pay the town $1 annually for the land. The club would be responsible for any other costs involved in building the facility.
The council voted 4-1 against the proposal, with Sirpis and Councilor Brian Libby not voting. Libby, who serves on the board member of the Fish and Game Club, voluntarily recused himself at the beginning of the discussion.
Tuesday night’s vote followed meetings in September and October where the club’s plan was either postponed or removed before a vote. On Sept. 12, Councilor Steven Nesbitt made a motion to postpone any action until more information about the proposal was available. On Oct. 10, Sirpis suggested temporarily withdrawing his own proposal so that he could circle back with club members and return to the council with a new proposal.
Councilors voting against the proposal had previously shown some level of general support for the facility, but they weren’t ready to move forward Tuesday.
“As I said, I do support this, but not tonight,” said Chairwoman Kimberly Pomerleau, who noted that the council had less than a week to review the specific proposal. “This needs to go back and have more work on it.”
“It’s been a roller coaster ride,” said Councilor Isabel Higgins. “It is premature to accept or execute a lease from the Standish Fish and Game Club, in my opinion, because there is still a lot of preliminary planning that needs to be done and approvals that need to be sought.”
“I think it’s time to vote this down. It’s time to build a municipal shooting range with public input,” Councilor Peter Sarostecki said before voting against the lease proposal.
“Who’s paying for that?” someone asked from the audience.
Sirpis said Wednesday he doesn’t believe the club has council support.
“They tell you that they’re supporters of the club, but I don’t think they are,” he said.
Councilor Michael Delcourt was the lone vote in favor of the lease proposal.
In a seemingly unusual arrangement, Delcourt, from the dais, read a prepared statement from Sirpis after he was recused. Sirpis was sitting two seats away.
“At the September Town Council meeting, the goal line was moved for a fifth time, and I felt the Standish Fish and Game Club was left at the altar yet again by some members of the council with yet another delay,” said Sirpis’ statement, as read by Delcourt. “That evening was when it was very clear it was time to draw a line in the sand. I’m bringing this order forward to be voted on so it can stand on its own merit, and it will either pass or fail. Tonight, we are either going to move forward or we’re going to come to an end of the road and stop wasting time.”
Some residents have expressed concerns about the Fish and Game Club’s stipulation that members also join the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine and the National Rifle Association. Several councilors also had reservations about those requirements.
In his statement read by Delcourt, Sirpis said he would step down from the club before asking members to “shy away from our core values” and change the requirements for NRA and SAM membership.
“I will stand steadfast before I watch you surrender my civil liberties. We have the right of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If the NRA makes us happy, that’s our business and not any form of government’s business – or any select group of citizens,” the statement said.
The public comment period stretched for more than an hour and 15 minutes, with residents from Standish and other towns rising to speak both in favor and against the proposal.
Comments also came from Sportsman’s Alliance Executive Director David Trahan. The alliance had sent out an email and posted a message on Facebook urging its statewide members to attend the council meeting in support of the Fish and Game Club’s proposal and to help in “beating back the Anti-Second Amendment crowd.” The Facebook message came from Trahan and was co-signed by Sirpis.
“We never asked for a range, we never asked for the site, all we ever did was offer support for this community. I’m here to, I guess, defend our membership and our role in this whole thing,” Trahan said. “But please don’t use us as this big demon out there called the gun lobby to beat up on. We represent issues all the way from land conservation to youth programs unrelated to hunting or firearms. And we do take a little bit of offense for the way we’ve been treated in this process.”
Comments against the proposal appeared to outnumber the comments in favor. Common reasons for opposition included the NRA and SAM membership issue, the proposed facility’s proximity to Steep Falls Elementary School, and its planned location on an existing wildlife sanctuary.
“Tonight’s debate isn’t over the Second Amendment, even though Councilor Sirpis would like you to think it is,” said Wells Lyons, who was one of several lease opponents to mention their ownership of firearms. “Yet those in favor of the proposed lease continue to try and frame this debate as a Second Amendment issue. Why? Because they know once you get past the theatrics, the details of this deal are downright embarrassing.”
Lyons called the $1 proposed lease “a slap in the face” to Standish taxpayers.
Lyons, who recently moved back to Standish and is a former candidate for Portland City Council, said he was part of a group of about 20 people that coalesced around opposition to the fish and game proposal.
Standish resident Steve Flaherty, vice president of the Buxton & Hollis Rod and Gun Club, said he is a voluntarily a member of both the NRA and SAM.
“I have absolutely no qualms, no disagreements with the NRA or the Sportsman’s Alliance. I think the Sportsman’s Alliance is 10 times better than the NRA. But to make it a mandatory thing, I think, is real, real stupid,” Flaherty said. His club previously discussed mandatory NRA and SAM membership but decided against it, he said.
The current and past presidents of Spurwink Rod & Gun Club in Cape Elizabeth, Tammy Walter and Mark Mayone, spoke in support of the proposal.
“Standish Town Council, I urge you to reject the interference of a small group of residents who are attempting to impose their will on the business of a private entity,” Walter said. “You have the interests of the sportsmen of your town, and our Maine heritage in your hands. Please do the right thing.”
Kathy Johnson, a Standish Fish and Game Club member, said she didn’t understand some of the push-back about the location and that she was “under the impression that it was town property that was basically unusable for anything else.”
Johnson also said after the meeting that she felt Sirpis was “very professional” Tuesday night and that it’s “disappointing” to “have the rules change every time we turn around.”
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Tammy Walter, president of the Spurwink Gun Club in Cape Elizabeth, speaks at the podium after traveling to Standish Tuesday night to support the Standish Fish and Game Club.
Steve Flaherty, a Standish resident and vice president of the Buxton & Hollis Rod and Gun Club, said he is an NRA and SAM member but doesn’t think the Standish Fish and Game Club should require membership in those organizations.
Richard Bernier addresses the Standish Town Council during public comment on a proposed lease for the Standish Fish and Game Club.