Opposition group cites Sportsman’s Club’s proximity to several schools
By Igor Studenkov | For The Bugle
The village of Niles Board of Trustees voted 5-1 last week to extend a special-use permit for the controversial Sportsman’s Club gun shop and firing range.
The village board originally approved the permit in July 2014, but the shop’s owners haven’t started construction due to a lawsuit filed by People For a Safer Society, a Skokie-based gun control advocacy group.
That lawsuit was dismissed in June, but the group recently filed an amended version of the suit. Despite this, the shop owners announced their intention to start construction as soon as the proper permits are approved.
Trustee Joe LoVerde cast the sole vote against extending the special use permit at the board’s July 28 meeting. Despite being absent during the original vote, LoVerde submitted an open letter saying he would have voted against it because he felt it did not meet the special use requirements. This time around, he said he was concerned about its proximity to several public and private schools.
Crux of the controversy
The issue of proximity was at the crux of the initial controversy surrounding the gun shop and firing range. Sportsman’s Club’s owners first applied for a permit to build the shop at 6143 W. Howard St., in Niles’ industrial district.
That application cleared the Niles Plan Commission. But in the weeks before the application went to the village board in July 2014, Niles Township High School District 219 raised concerns that the shop would be too close to Niles West and Niles Central high schools.
Residents also raised concerns that it would be within one block of New Hope Academy, a private school for teens struggling with behavioral issues.
The village board approved the application a month later on July 29, 2014. In October, People For a Safer Society filed a lawsuit to not only strike down the permit, but prohibit Niles from granting a special use permit for any gun shop that wishes to open at 6143 W. Howard St.
In December, the Niles attorneys moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the group lacked standing and filed its suit based on the wrong legal basis. Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Franklin Ulyses Valderrama ultimately sided with the village.
However, he dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, allowing PFSS to file the lawsuit again.
Earlier this month, PFSS did just that. The new lawsuit is largely identical to the original, but it now names the owners of Sportsman’s Club as defendants.
In a letter to the village, Sportsman’s Club manager Adam Firsel explained that the company didn’t want to proceed with construction until the lawsuit was resolved. Although the letter stated that the owners are worried about the lawsuit, it added that they intend to proceed with construction.
“We have submitted our application for building permits on July 2, and have complete sets of drawings for the entire building we intend to repurpose for our use,” the letter stated. “At this time we are ready willing and able to complete the construction of the facility once the building permit is granted.”
In order to begin construction, however, the company had to get a six-month extension on its permit.
Members of PFSS came to the July 28 Niles Village Board meeting in force, and most of the people who spoke during public comment opposed the extension.
Diane Parcunis of Niles said she was worried about the effect the gun shop would have on students at Niles Central and New Hope Academy. Pacunis also expressed concern that an employee of Shore Galleries gun shop would be working for Sportsman’s Club. The Lincolnwood-based gun shop was cited in Chicago Police Department’s May 27, 2014, report on illegally purchased guns and cited as the fourth largest source of straw purchases.
“The reason for my objection is two-fold: where the gun shop will be located and the connection to Shore Galleries,” Parcunis said.
Some of the shop’s supporters also spoke at the meeting.
Niles resident Al Schafer argued that there was no reason for the village to prevent a legal business from opening.
“This [business] is utilizing a building that is going to be renovated and will surely help Niles revenue in the area,” he said. “So long as all the criteria are met, there is no reason why we shouldn’t put it in the village of Niles.”
Former Trustee Rosemary Palicki, who voted against the original permit because she felt it didn’t meet all three special-use requirements, urged the board to vote against the extension.
“To me this is not a gun rights issue – it’s an issues of setting the criteria for special use and ignoring it,” she said.
District 219 Superintendent Nanciann Perez reiterated the district’s opposition to the shop
“Locating the gun shop at this location will provide easy access to guns,” she said. “The parents and concerned residents can’t believe the village of Niles would allow the gun shop close to our schools.”
Denyse Stoneback, PFSS president, urged trustees to fulfill the wishes of their constituents and vote against the extension.
“Tonight you have the opportunity to not only correct that mistake, but also accurately represent your constituents by voting ‘no’ to this extension,” she said. “You have the chance to do the right thing for your community.”
When the extension came up for vote, trustee George Alpogianis said he understood the concerns of Niles West parents – even if he didn’t share their position.
“I am not pro or anti-gun, I don’t have a [Firearms Owner Identification card],” he said. “I do feel that I need to abide by the law and follow the law. I do have children in Niles West and Culver [Elementary School], so I am as vested as everyone else.”
Despite no longer having concerns about special-use permit requirements, LoVerde said he still felt uneasy about the location of Sportsman’s Club.
“I can’t buy into the location,” he said. “One of my responsibilities [as a trustee] is to protect the welfare of my community.”
Trustee Denise McCreery, who was elected after the original permit was granted, said she gave this issue a great deal of thought before deciding how she would vote.
“I researched this topic ad nauseam, because, as a mother of two children, it has obviously been a great concern,” she said. “In my campaign, I visited thousands Niles homes and attended countless events with multitude of people who were were clear how they felt about [the issue] I will be voting tonight the way they asked me to vote.”