At a Calaveras County Board of Supervisors meeting on June 25, dozens of marksmen, women and children packed into the audience to defend their beloved Angels Gun Club from what they foresee to be utter dissolution.
A hearing had been called to determine if the three-quarters-of-a-century-old gun club, on Gun Club Road, was in violation of county code. The Calaveras County Planning Director and Commission had already determined that the facility, which predated current zoning laws and was therefore “grandfathered in,” had not made any changes or expansions that were significant enough to violate those laws.
Thomas Tryon, one of the longest-serving former supervisors and a fourth-generation cattle rancher, appealed the Planning Commission’s findings. He claims changes made to the rifle range, pistol range and shooting hours in recent years have affected the safety and quality of life on his adjacent 800-acre ranch.
The club, with approximately 450 members, denies making any alterations beyond those required by state and federal regulations.
During the hearing, self-professed former friends of Tryon condemned his actions against the club, accusing he and his family of “greed” and seeking to develop their ranch into residential parcels. One of them was Angels Gun Club Vice President Clay Dillashaw, who stated that Tryon showed him plans for a housing development on his property roughly 10 years ago.
The gun club’s attorney, Robert Ferrier, described the situation as “an anaconda that keeps expanding” and made a passionate plea to the board to protect the only gun club in Calaveras County.
“Where else am I supposed to practice if Tryon shuts this place down?” asked Cody Fish, a Team Angels Youth Shooter.
Tryon, a former gun club member, stated during the hearing that he was not seeking to close the gun club, but rather force it to comply with a conditional use permit. He cited fears of family members being “killed or maimed” by incoming shots and having his water source contaminated with lead.
“We’re not shutting down the gun club, but simply asking them to follow the rules,” echoed Tryon’s son Walter, who is currently the sole occupant of the ranch. He claimed that the rifle range was not in place when he shot at the club as a child, and also added that all federal lands are legal to shoot on. “There are options. You’ve just gotta find them,” he said.
Tryon’s wife, Denise, stated that she was afraid to ride horses and walk their property near the rifle and pistol range. “Advocacy for the right to use firearms does not invalidate the personal property rights of others, be they based on altruism or greed,” she said.
In the end, the board voted 4-0, with District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi absent, to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision, determining that no alterations had been made to the facility that violated its status as a legal, non-conforming use.
However, as stated by District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway, the focus of the decision was “extremely narrow” and did not take into account the Tryon family’s complaints of noise, danger and potential lead contamination.
Those issues will be taken up this month in a pending lawsuit, filed by Tryon with the Calaveras County Superior Court in 2017.
A recent settlement statement submitted by Tryon’s attorney states that the plaintiff initially sought the “phasing out” of operations at the gun club, while the defendants refused any agreement that would shut down the facility.
The plaintiff’s modified request is to develop a remediation plan for noise and lead concerns, and to “realign or reorient” the pistol and rifle ranges. Gun club attorney Ferrier does not expect the two parties to reach a settlement at the conference later this month, at which point the judge will likely set a trial date.
“This is an existential threat to the gun club,” Ferrier told the Enterprise. “If Mr. Tryon prevails, it will probably be forced to shut its doors, which I think would cause real damage to the county itself.”
Still, Tryon and his family maintain that it is not their intention to end the historic club, which was established in 1947 by World War II veterans as a venue for target practice, competitions and social gatherings, growing over the years to encompass roughly 20 acres.
“I’m not mad at the gun club. I’d love for the gun club to continue,” Tryon told the Enterprise, though he admitted that being subjected to a “reasonable set of conditions” may, in fact, shut down the club.
Tryon also maintains that he has no plans to develop or sell the equally historic ranch he owns with his siblings during his lifetime. Any developments on the property, which is currently classified as general agriculture, would have to be approved and rezoned by the city.
“If they were operating as they were in 2010 or 2012, I wouldn’t be here,” said Tryon, who claims that nearly half of his ranch is “adversely condemned” by changes to the rifle and pistol ranges. In the process of his lawsuit, he has brought forward additional complaints of noise and potential lead contamination.
An environmental study performed last year by RCC Group, LLC on behalf of Tryon found “higher than average” amounts of lead in soil samples on the Tryon parcel adjacent to the club, as well as water samples from a creek shared by the two parties.
Also last year, while informally inspecting the rifle and pistol ranges at the gun club, Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio observed the potential for projectiles to trespass onto the neighboring property and recommended in a letter to Planning Director Peter Maurer that “further shooting be suspended until preventative measures are implemented that will reduce this risk.”
According to Ferrier, Angels Gun Club complies with state standards for lead mitigation. “This is not pristine wilderness,” he said, citing nearby mining and sewage activities, as well as commercial hunting and target shooting on Tryon’s properties.
“(This) is by far the best-organized and best-run gun club I’ve ever seen,” Ferrier said. “Every time I go there, it’s obvious their paramount concern is safety and being good citizens of Calaveras County.”
Ferrier added that the articles of incorporation for the gun club include rifle shooting.
“The idea that, somehow, the club is of present danger to the county is frankly absurd. It’s never been a problem,” Ferrier said.
A settlement conference regarding the Tryon vs. Angels Gun Club lawsuit will be held on July 15 at the Calaveras County Superior Court.
“The stakes are very high,” Ferrier said. “This is about the survival of a Calaveras County institution that has been there for three-quarters of a century, woven into the community. It’s a fight to the death.”