MUNROE FALLS — The city and four neighboring communities are finalizing a settlement agreement with a Munroe Falls resident who last year said he was going to take legal action against all the municipalities that use the city’s firing range on Main Street.

Mayor James Armstrong said the city is planning to permanently close the range. A moratorium on the use of the range has been in place since the city and the other four communities received the notice of potential litigation from the resident last summer.

In June 2018, officials in Munroe Falls, Cuyahoga Falls, Silver Lake, Stow and Tallmadge, as well as each of those entities’ police departments, received a letter notifying them that Thomas Shubert intended to file a lawsuit against them for alleged violations of state and federal environmental laws. 

Shubert’s attorney, Andrew J. Karas of Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, sent the letter to the various communities. Last year, Karas said that Shubert wanted the cities involved to stop using the range and to “conduct ... an environmentally sufficient assessment to gauge the nature and extent of the [alleged] contamination of the ground, of the groundwater, and of the adjacent [Cuyahoga] River, to gauge what sort of remediation is likely to be necessary.”

After receiving the letter, Armstrong said all five communities worked together on an “agreement to resolve the legal matter and sharing the related costs such as clean up, legal fees, and engineering. Munroe Falls will be responsible for half the cost, with the other communities sharing the remaining cost based upon usage over past years.”

“Although all communities believe they were on firm legal ground if the matter proceeded to court, the expense associated with successfully defending a lawsuit far exceeded the agreed settlement,” said Armstrong.

When reached, Karas said “given the pending settlement talks,” he did not want to offer any comments. Shubert did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The communities are budgeting the following amounts to primarily pay for cleanup costs and some other expenses related to the range: Cuyahoga Falls, $60,000; Stow, $23,190; Tallmadge, approximately $8,000; and Silver Lake, about $1,000.

When Munroe Falls City Council approved the city’s 2019 budget in December, that spending plan included $100,000 that was earmarked for “the shooting range, the cost of the litigation and any cost in …[the] cleanup that may be necessary,” according to Armstrong. He added he will ask city council to approve the settlement agreement with Shubert and the other communities and to enter a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with all of the communities at council’s next meeting on March 19.

Cuyahoga Falls City Council, Stow City Council and Tallmadge City Council have already approved the legislation to enter the settlement agreement and the MOU, and to earmark money for the costs.

Silver Lake Mayor Bernie Hovey told his council on Monday that the village’s share for cleaning up the range will be a little more than $1,000. Even though that cost was below the spending threshold that requires council approval, Hovey asked council if they would like to formally approve it. Council members indicated that they did not feel that was necessary.

Hovey said he has signed the MOU.

Then-Stow Law Director Amber Zibritosky explained that the settlement lists the total amount that the communities will collectively pay, while the MOU itemizes the specific amounts that each community will pay.

In reaching the decision to close the range, Armstrong noted that after cleaning the range, the city would have had to do upgrades and noted the costs of such improvements “really wouldn’t be financially beneficial. The return on investment would take so long to be recouped. We’re talking 30 years.”

Armstrong said the amount of regulations on firing ranges are “far greater” than they were when the range was first opened.

“It’s going to cost us more money to redo the shooting range than it will be for the officers to go train elsewhere,” explained Armstrong.

One of the reasons for the upgrades would’ve been to reduce the noise level. When officers were practicing shooting with rifles, the mayor said “it was very loud.” He added that officials have been examining ways to reduce the noise level since he became mayor in 2016.

Other community leaders offer thoughts

“We found a way that was mutually agreeable to everyone to split up the costs that took into account usage and also the property ownership,” said Cuyahoga Falls Law Director Russ Balthis. 

Zibritosky said she felt all of the communities “worked very well together” to reach an agreement that she said she believed was “fair to all the parties.” She also thanked Munroe Falls officials “for their leadership on this issue.”

“I think the situation was handled in a cooperative manner so that everyone is paying an equitable portion,” said Tallmadge Law Director Megan Raber.

Silver Lake Police Chief James Norris said his department was not billed for the use of the range and noted there was “no way” he would be able to find another range that his officers could use free of charge.

Silver Lake Village Council President Jerry Jones (At Large) said he felt the settlement was “a good solution.”

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.