CHESTERFIELD, N.H. >> A local gun shop owner has admitted he and his business partners have made a number of mistakes that resulted in a letter from the town's zoning enforcement office.
"We screwed up," said Robert Hodgkins III, who is co-owner of Highland Arms on Route 63 in Spofford, adding "We are a victim of our own success. We didn't realize our business would grow so fast."
On Jan. 21, Highlander Arms was served with a violation notice from the town, which noted four violations to Chesterfield's zoning ordinance, including one for expanding the shop's showroom.
"The expansion was built without my knowledge," Chet Greenwood, Chesterfield's zoning enforcement officer, told the Reformer.
While Hodgkins had building permits for other construction on his property, including a barn addition, he did not have permission to expand his gun shop. Greenwood said he has not actually been to visit the site, but learned about the expansion from Highland Arms' website and Facebook page.
"He has until Feb. 4 to file a response," said Greenwood.
Hodgkins told the Reformer that he did not submit an application to the Chesterfield Zoning Board for the gun shop's expansion and understands he must now make it right. According to Greenwood, Hodgkins can still apply for a building permit for the already constructed expansion, but will need to pay twice the application fee, as is noted in Chesterfield's zoning ordinance.
According to the violation letter, Hodgkins also posted hours of business on his website and Facebook page, which is a violation of the conditions of approval that were granted to Highlander Arms in 2007 and 2008. As noted in the permit issued by the Zoning Board of Approval, Highlander Arms is only allowed to sell firearms by appointment. In addition, Hodgkins is only allowed to employ three non-residents at the shop. Hodgkins admitted he has six employees and hopes to hire several more.
"We didn't realize we would grow so fast," he said.
The violation letter also stated that it has received complaints that non-residents are firing guns at the site, which is also restricted by the variances issued in 2007 and 2008. While Highlander Arms has an enclosed firing range, it can only be used to test-fire repaired weapons or firearms manufactured on-site; no customer firing is allowed.
Hodgkins said he plans to present his response to the town by Feb. 4 and noted he also has a planning application in the works for a new retail store on Route 9. "We have a purchase-and-sale agreement for the farm stand at the corner of Brook Street and Route 9."
He said he has had discussions with all the abutters and they have indicated they are OK with Highlander Arms opening a retail shop at the location.
"They are excited to see a new business in Chesterfield," said Hodgkins.
Having a high-visibility location is crucial to the growth of Highlander Arms, he added. He also noted that the renovated farm stand will have "state-of-the-art security," to protect the inventory.
Hodgkins has been before the Chesterfield Selectboard and Zoning Board of Approval in the past. In 2014, neighbors filed complaints of "excessive shooting" at the location on Route 63.
On July 5, 2014, the Chesterfield Police Department received a complaint from neighbors, one of whom later told the Board of Selectmen that the "shooting event was reminiscent of being in the war zone."
Hodgkins said the July 5 event was a private party with close friends. Lester Fairbanks, who was then the chief of police in Chesterfield, said "the shooting occurred during reasonable hours and he was not aware of any violations being made during the event."
According to the meeting minutes, "Hodgkins apologized if his personal shooting offends others and asked that anyone contact him with concerns. He added that the car fire (on July 5) was an accident and the fire department did respond."
Hodgkins has also run into issues in Williamsburg, Mass., where his family owns a firing range on Village Hill Road. According to The Republican, in 2011, the Williamsburg Building Inspector expressed concerns that the range was being used for commercial purposes, which is a violation of town ordinances. According to The Republican, the building inspector learned of the activity after reading statements from a Chesterfield Zoning Board meeting in which Hodgkins said his company, Highlander Security Consulting, "planned to test fire weapons at a Massachusetts site and not on the New Hampshire property where his business is headquartered."
"Hodgkins assured the (Chesterfield) board that he would restrict weapons testing to his facility in Massachusetts. Partly on the basis of that assurance, the Chesterfield zoning board granted the exemption," the building inspector wrote, noting that he discovered videos of people wearing T-shirts advertising a Holyoke company called Irish Arms shooting on the Williamsburg property.
But Hodgkins told The Republican that his comments to the Chesterfield Zoning Board were about a firing range in Springfield, not Williamsburg, and the people wearing the T-shirts were just friends using the range recreationally.
Neighbors of the firing range on Village Hill Road have filed 247 complaints about the firing of automatic weapons over the past five years, but the town has declined to cite Hodgkins because "it appeared he was doing so recreationally, which is his right under state law."
In 2011, the zoning board ruled that gunfire activity must return to pre-2003 levels with no commercial activity.
In November 2015, Hodgkins was back before the Williamsburg Zoning Board of Appeals, which took testimony from neighbors, lawyers, property owners, and firearms users about the use of the Village Hill Road property and whether using it as a firing range violates town ordinances. On Nov. 19, the Zoning Board found in favor of an abutter, who had filed an appeal of a building commissioner's ruling that the site was in compliance with the 2011 rules. Shooting at the site is currently limited by a set of new conditions issued by the board on Dec. 9, 2015. According to The Republican, Hodgkins has filed an appeal in Hampshire Superior Court, saying the zoning board committed procedural errors and did not have the authority to issue the new restrictions.
An abutter to the firing range has filed harassment complaints against Hodgkins, alleging the gun shop owner has threatened him over his complaints to the town about the firing range. But Hodgkins told the Reformer that the court in Cheshire County recently issued a protective order against the order, forbidding him from contacting Hodgkins, who is also filing for a similar protective order in Massachusetts.
According to The Republican, in 2011, "Hodgkins told Judge Richard J. Carey that (an abutter) has trespassed on his land to videotape him, his friends and his young daughter shooting. He said (the abutter) also spit on him and struck him on the shoulder."
But the abutter told the court that "Hodgkins and his friends have driven close to his house with automatic weapons out and shined a bright light on the building."
Hodgkins denied and continues to deny the abutter's complaints, contending his family has used the range to fire weapons since the 1950s. Hodgkins said the abutter who spit on him is facing charges of criminal trespassing, criminal harassment and criminal threatening in Hampshire County.
Recently, Hodgkins filed a complaint with the town of Williamsburg that its zoning enforcement officer had trespassed while he was shooting on the property and illegally recorded a conversation between the two.
Greenwood, Chesterfield's zoning enforcement officer, told the Reformer that if Hodgkins doesn't remedy the violations, the local court can fine Hodgkins $275 for the initial violation and $550 a day, starting on Jan. 21.