Albemarle County approves new police training facility despite neighborhood opposition

Albemarle County resident Virginia Coleman has owned 600 acres next to the Keene landfill since 1976, and is concerned that the new police shooting range will disrupt her cattle. Photo: John Robinson Albemarle County resident Virginia Coleman has owned 600 acres next to the Keene landfill since 1976, and is concerned that the new police shooting range will disrupt her cattle. Photo: John Robinson

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan last week to build a police training facility and firing range in a quiet corner of Albemarle. Officials agreed to construct the center at the site of the 169-acre, county-owned Keene landfill off Route 704, despite loud and lengthy arguments against it from neighbors. Rural county residents agreed that police and other public safety officials should have access to the best training possible, but they aren’t pleased about the new training facility coming to their neck of the woods.

“Every day we delay is another day we’re providing less than average training for the men and women who are charged with protecting our community,” Albemarle County Police Chief Steve Sellers told the Board, adding that it’s his responsibility to ensure his officers’ safety every day, and “getting our law enforcement officers above the minimum level of firearms proficiency is critical.”

At last week’s meeting, Sellers and Charlottesville’s Police Chief Tim Longo gave a presentation to the Board and answered question about the range’s location and appearance. The center, located centrally on the property, will consist of three outdoor shooting ranges enclosed on three sides by 20′ high walls built into the earth, a classroom building, a small sheltered area, and a vault toilet. The firearms range will be the first phase of the project, with future endeavors including a burn building, more classrooms, and a drivers’ training track.

Virginia Coleman doesn’t question the area’s need for police training, but as an Albemarle County resident who owns cattle and 600 acres of land next to the Keene landfill, she and her family think the police department and the Board of Supervisors could find a less disruptive place to put the new facility.

“It’s just going to change our way of life entirely,” she said.

If officers are training close by, responding to emergency situations in the city or county will be easier and more efficient than traveling an hour and a half, Sellers said. The police currently receive training one day a year at the Rivanna Rifle & Pistol Club, and Sellers said a new facility would allow officers to participate in about three days of intensive training each year. Having control over the operations and scheduling of a facility would allow police, firefighters, and rescue squads more flexibility, and Sellers added that eventually the space could be rented to outside groups to bring in a little revenue.

Coleman, a member of Save Rural Albemarle and one of many to speak out against the firing range, is a fourth-generation cattle rancher who has lived in the county since 1976. She fears the noise pollution and environmental impacts will prevent her and her family from keeping their cattle and horses quiet and calm, which she said is essential in the breeding business. She said she heard a number of invalid arguments at last Wednesday’s meeting, including the assumption that gunshots are no louder than tractors, leaf-blowers, or other noisy farm sounds.

“The difference is, those are constant noises that the animals get accustomed to,” Coleman said. “But the staccato of shootings is not that way. I don’t want my animals to get spooked.”

Coleman said she wished the Board would consider other options, like the old tire plant in Scottsville, but Supervisors and the police departments agreed it was too expensive. The discussion ended in a 5-0 vote and the decision to move the project forward. Supervisor Chris Dumler abstained, and said he will not vote on any matter involving the police in order to avoid conflict of interest in light of his recent forcible sodomy charge.

“I’m really disappointed in the Board of Supervisors. They want what they want, and they will bend their own rules to have it,” Coleman said. “But if the rest of us need a little assistance or want to bend something, it isn’t going to happen.”

Supervisor Ken Boyd said he empathizes with the neighbors, and that the police department is doing all it can to work closely with them to mitigate any concerns they have.

“This is not something you’d want in a highly populated area,” he said. “Also, it’s a property we already owned, which will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Development in the rural areas is a regular topic of debate, and Boyd said this situation in no way sets a precedent for future projects, nor did the Board make any exceptions.

“We didn’t loosen any of the rules or processes that you need to go through in order to build this facility here,” he said.

Boyd said the police department will continue the dialogue with rural county residents, and now that the project has been approved, it will not likely make its way onto a Board of Supervisors agenda again.