Conditional Use Permits for Wisconsin Shooting Ranges

August 12, 2020

In Hartland Sportsmen’s Club, Inc. v. City of Delafield, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed the Waukesha County Circuit Court’s earlier order requiring the City to grant Hartland Sportsmen’s Club’s conditional use permit application to operate a sport shooting range.

In 2013, the Hartland Sportsmen’s Club sued the City for continually denying the Club’s permit application to operate a shooting range.  The City set numerous safety requirements for the Club before it would approve the permit.  However, each time the Club complied with the City’s requirements, the City created new standards and requirements, making it practically impossible for the Club to get its permit approved.

For example, the Club implemented several safety restrictions at the recommendation of the City including no blue-sky technology, National Rifle Association (NRA) guidelines, and a revamped range officer program.  The City then required the Club comply with the NRA Range Sourcebook, despite the Range Sourcebook being merely suggested practice as opposed to an industry standard.  For over two years, the Club continued to make adjustments recommended by the City.  However, the City still denied the permit due to safety concerns, without ever explaining how the Club’s application did not meet safety standards.  Left with no other options, the Club sued the City.  The Waukesha County Circuit Court concluded that the City’s denial of the permit was arbitrary and capricious, representing the City’s will rather than its judgment.  Because the Club’s application met each of the City’s requirements, the Circuit Court invalidated the City’s denial of the permit.  In 2016, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision.

After the Court of Appeals ruled against the City’s denial of the shooting range permit, the City still did not approve the Club’s permit.  Instead, the City held new hearings and once again denied the Club’s permit, thereby forcing the Club to seek a court order demanding the City approve its permit application.  The Circuit Court ordered the City to issue the permit, but the City appealed.  On appeal, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals supported the Circuit Court’s reversal of the City’s decision, concluding that the City committed an incurable due process violation.  Specifically, the City was unable to demonstrate any factual basis for its denial of the permit according to alleged safety concerns while the evidence revealed that the Club met and addressed each of the City’s requirements and concerns.  Therefore, the due process violation could not be cured without outright reversal of the City’s decision.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s order for the City to grant the Club’s permit to operate a sport shooting range.

This case sets the precedent that local municipalities will not be given vast discretion to deny conditional use permits for sport shooting ranges.  If a sport shooting range complies with the safety requirements of the local government, that municipality has a plain legal duty to issue the conditional use permit. The broader implication for all conditional use permit holders or applicants is that you must make a clear record, with full documentation, of your attempts to satisfy the municipality’s conditions. Failure to do so will lead to an inability to prove that the municipality exercised its will and not its judgment. Moral of the story: document, document, document!

Axley has a team of lawyers well versed in the process and procedure necessary to gain approval for conditional use permits and has a proven track record of success.