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Cowlitz County is loaning itself $245,000 to ensure a controversial gun range near Castle Rock is completed by a deadline and opens this summer.

Commissioners Tuesday approved a new agreement with the Cowlitz Game & Anglers club and also called for bids on the project. Officials hope to begin work in late April and have the range completed by the end of May, though a 30-day extension may be necessary, Parks Director Ron Junker told commissioners.

The range's special-use permit requires that the range be completed by the end of May or the permit — and entire project — will be in jeopardy.

The new agreement includes borrowing $245,000 from the county's Solid Waste Land, Equipment and Facilities fund to complete the project. The club will repay the money over 15 years through user fees at the range, though commissioners also said they may use future recreation funds to pay off the loan. That would mean tax dollars would be used directly to build the gun range, which hadn't been proposed before.

Initially, the Game & Anglers club proposed building the gun range itself and only renting the land at the end of Toutle Park Road from the county. Neighbors challenged the permit, and a hearings examiner subsequently imposed 47 special conditions on the project, including, for example, noise-control measures. Club members said they could not afford to meet all the conditions. In particular, they said they couldn't post a required $200,000 cleanup bond for future lead abatement from spent bullets.

Last year, the county agreed to take over the project, which did away with the need for the bond. That plan called for the county to own the range and the club to raise the money for it and to run the range. The county also hired a contracted project manager to oversee the project. So far, the county has paid $27,000 of a possible $50,000 on the manager position, Junker said.

The new agreement and the $245,000 loan allows the project to go out to bid.

The Game & Anglers has about $160,000 remaining in grants and donations that also will go toward the project, said club President Dick Miller. Junker estimates it will cost about $420,000 to construct the range, though costs could be reduced with some volunteer labor. There also is a possibility of borrowing additional money from the county fund if needed, he said.

Commissioners said they approved the loan because the range will be a benefit to county residents. Commissioner Mike Karnofski noted a gun range was the top priority listed by the county parks advisory board.

The range will be the only public shooting range in the county. Plans include a 300-yard range with 12 rifle and 12 pistol stations, a trap range and a 100-yard archery range.

Miller said Tuesday he was glad the project finally will go forward.

"We may not have liked everything that went on with delays, but bottom line the county is now getting a great shooting range," Miller said. "It's great news."

Neighbors, however, remain opposed to the range and say the noise will ruin their country setting. Several said Tuesday the project was still a bad idea and objected to the county using tax dollars for it — even as a loan.

"If the $245,000 is for Phase 1, how will you pay for Phase 2?" asked neighbor Ryana Covington. The special-use permit requires that Phase 2 be completed by the end of May 2014.

County officials said they'll pursue grants for the second phase of the range, which will include a well, septic system, trap shooting locations and pistol and archery ranges. A cost estimate hasn't yet been developed for that work but Junker said county officials do not expect to use county dollars for Phase 2.


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