PALMER — A gravel pit off the Glenn Highway near Palmer is currently home to a gate, a “no trespassing” sign and some old carnival equipment. But if things go Chase Eckert’s way, the 14-acre lot near Matanuska Lake will soon house Livefire Alaska, the Valley’s newest outdoor shooting range featuring automatic weapon rentals — and it’s unclear whether the public will get to weigh in before that happens.
Eckert, who has a land use agreement for the lot with his family’s company, Heritage Holdings, of which he is shareholder, envisions his new business at 4786 S. Glenn Highway as a shooting range theme park, he said. His family owns Alaska-based Golden Wheel Amusements and has been in the theme park and carnival business since 1967.
Centering his new business around an entertainment concept just makes sense, Eckert said.
“We want to offer firearms in a recreational fashion that’s not scary for people,” he said.
Rather than continue to pay property taxes on vacant property the family has owned for more than 40 years, Eckert said they started looking to develop it after a spate of recent thefts of items stored there as well as use by vagrants. He said they also recently sold 1.1 acres of the land to the state for the ongoing highway expansion project.
The range will feature three recreational shooting lanes and two instructor-only lanes, he said. With a visitor center, nature walk area, classrooms, gift shop, camping sites and room for food trucks and events, Eckert hopes to attract tourists and bachelor party users, among others. Visitors will be able to rent automatic and other high-powered weapons not easily available elsewhere. During the summer months he plans to have the range open from noon to 7 p.m. daily, with appointment-only use during the winter, likely centered around private instructors.
But the shooting range plans have drawn fire from some area neighbors, who worry that the noise will disrupt their homes and businesses, as well as wildlife on the nearby Crevasse Moraine and Matanuska Lakes trail systems and Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge. Eckert’s lot sits next door to Alaska Artisan Coffee and directly across the Glenn Highway from land designated for the future home of the Mat-Su Valley South Gateway Visitor Center.
Those neighbors say the new business should be approved through a public hearing and permit process. Eckert said he was surprised when his lawyer told him that he does not need a conditional use permit through the Mat-Su Borough, a process that costs $1,000 and includes a two- to three-month application review, public comments and a hearing and, ultimately, a decision on the plan from a seven-member board. He said the ordinances in Chapter 8.52 of the borough’s code governing noise only apply to amplified sound, not gunshots.
Yet officials with the borough said Eckert may not be as free from the approval process, and he may still need a permit under a separate section, 17.61, which specifically governs conditional use permits. That section states that shooting ranges within the borough’s core area are regulated if the sound, or decibels, go above a certain level, said Alex Strawn, the borough’s development services manager.
Whether or not the new range will exceed that sound threshold, Strawn said, depends on the noise abatement techniques installed. Eckhert can choose to spend the $1,000 to get the permit now, or take the gamble that he won’t need it when construction is done and he’s ready to open, Strawn said.
“He’d be sort of building that at his own risk,” he said. “The other option is to say ‘we’re likely to exceed this’ and get a conditional use permit. That’s always the wiser option.”
To address the noise issue Eckert said he plans to maintain the natural 75- by 75-foot berms between the property and Matanuska Lake, build additional berms and barriers where necessary, and install 12- by 24-foot berms between the shooting lanes for safety and sound protection. He said they also plan to install coverings over the lanes and use other sound suppression methods for the weapons.
Eckert said he’s also worked with various organizations, including the National Rifle Association and Environmental Protection Agency, to follow best practices for keeping the bullet lead in the berms and away from the lake.
Officials with some of the nearby development projects and lands, including the planned visitor center, said they do not know enough about the new shooting range to comment on it or its potential impact on the surrounding area.
“We’ll be looking into it here in the future,” said Casey Ressler, the marketing and communications manager for the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Ron Maclure, who owns Alaska Artisan Coffee and lives on the three acres directly next to the planned range, worries that noise from the new business will lower his property value. Maclure, who has listed his property for sale in the past, was hoping to re-list it this week. News of the shooting range has forced him to put off that plan, he said.
“We’re going to keep the sign up because we’ve got (Alaska State) Fair traffic, but we pulled the listing because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Maclure said. “We were in shock, my wife and I. No one ever approached us... the borough never approached us, there’s no consideration on what impact it would have for us.”
Eckert said he’s worked to keep his neighbors’ interests in mind, but ultimately can do what he wants with his land.
“I think the only complaint that I think is a valid complaint is the noise, and we completely understand, so we’re doing what we can to mitigate the noise and be good neighbors,” he said. “Honestly I wouldn't want anyone moving a range next to me.”
Maclure, who has owned his land since 1995, said he’s also concerned about the potential risks to the environment, including nearby Matanuska Lake.
Dan Payne, who owns 130 acres southeast of the planned range, said he can hear gunshots from the weapons training that Eckert has recently hosted on the land. He said he is primarily concerned about the potential environmental impacts.
“This is a critical wildlife habitat area,” he said. “It’s critical for many migratory species as a nesting area.”
Desiree Olson, who owns nearby Fox Run Lodge and RV Campground, said she has no problem with the new range as long as Eckert addresses the noise problems. She regularly rents space for classroom work to Matsu Tactical. Eckert said that company will use the range space for shooting.
“I’m all for gun safety, I don’t have any gripes about it,” Olson said. “I know that it is noisy sometimes, and I think that they’re taking steps to rectify the noise issue. If they want to develop the property, it’s their property — good for them.”
What she doesn’t want to see, she said, is more regulation.
“Everything is ridiculously over-regulated as it is — I mean everything,” she said. “All it does is create more expense and more hassle for everybody concerned, especially everybody that’s trying to operate a business.”
Borough Assemblyman Matthew Beck, whose District 2 includes the proposed shooting range, said the controversy is the perfect example of why public hearings and input exist.
“I’m neither against this nor for it — I own firearms and I shoot,” he said. “I haven't made up my mind with what’s going on here, but I do think it's a good example of where there’s need for a conditional use permit, that way it involves the public.
Maclure said he also just wants to see Eckert’s business go through a public approval process.
“If due process is done correctly, and I end up (being) voted against, at least due diligence is done,” he said. “But none of that has been done.”