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Proposed gun shop triggers debate

Sep. 21, 2012 @ 12:01 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Huntington City Council will decide the fate of a business owner's request to rezone property in the city's Highlawn neighborhood so he can open a retail gun store.

The petition, which is up for a vote during the council's Sept. 24 meeting, requests that property located at 2800 1st Ave. be rezoned from R-2 Residence to C-1 Neighborhood Commercial.

Businessman Brian Galligan wants to open a full-service firearms store that would sell Glock brand weapons as well as offer repair and cleaning services and training classes. Galligan has received opposition from some Highlawn residents who say a gun store doesn't fit in a residential neighborhood and backing from a few others who say the property has historically been used for commercial purposes and should continue to operate as such.

The request comes to City Council with a positive recommendation from the Huntington Planning Commission. The commission reviewed the petition Sept. 4 and voted 4-1 in favor. Mayor Kim Wolfe was the lone dissenting vote.

Galligan bought the property from St. Mary's Medical Center in July 2011. The two-story building is located in front of the hospital's parking garage and less than a block west of its campus. When St. Mary's sold the property to Galligan, both parties contemplated that it would be used for commercial purposes, according to a letter that St. Mary's President and CEO Michael Sellards sent to Planning Commission members Aug. 27. St. Mary's had used the building as a consignment shop and gift shop, even though the city's Planning Department noted in a report to Planning Commission members that the property has not held a business license since 1996.

"We do not object to the rezoning of the subject property to C-1," Sellards wrote.

Galligan said he started the business licensing process after obtaining his federal firearms license for the shop in early July. Toward the end of the process, city officials told him they could not issue him an occupancy permit because the property was zoned R-2 Residential.

Galligan said he was unaware the property was zoned for residential purposes when he bought it from St. Mary's. He said he was led to believe it was zoned for commercial use because previous businesses had been in the building and because St. Mary's attached property restrictions to the deed that prevent Galligan from opening a bar, restaurant or any other type of business that sells intoxicating beverages on the premises.

City Planner Breanna Shell said city records indicate the land the building sits on was rezoned for residential use in or around 1998. But because businesses were operating there, it continued as a non-conforming use, Shell said.

According to city zoning laws, if the non-conforming use of any property is discontinued for one year, it must conform to the uses permitted within its zoning classification.

City officials say the building at 2800 1st Ave. reached the one-year mark in July and, therefore, conformed to R-2 Residential. That also explains why Galligan must petition to rezone the property to C-1 Neighborhood Commercial, they say. Galligan argues the non-conforming use clause as it pertains to his building is debatable, but he said he moved forward with the petition anyway.

Susan Gillette, president of the Highlawn Neighborhood Association, said the rezoning petition has been widely discussed among residents since it came to light in August. The association has not taken an official stance on the petition because although many residents oppose it, there are some association members who support Galligan's efforts, Gillette said.

"I can't speak for the association as a whole, but in my opinion, I don't think it's a general fear or dislike of guns that has people upset," she said. "It has more to do with the belief that a gun shop does not fit in with our zoning here and with the community that we want in Highlawn."

Cindy Jeffords, who lives in the 2700 block of Emmons Avenue, echoes Gillette's sentiments.

"Does Highlawn itself need a business to provide guns to its residents? Will a gun shop be able to promote a sense of community in a neighborhood which clearly is at odds with it? Will this shop, located across the street from family residences, be situated in a commercial hub at all? The answer to all three questions is a resounding 'no,' " Jeffords said. "A gun store plunked right in the heart of a residential area does not fit the picture of Highlawn we are endeavoring to mold."

Greg McCoy, who lives in the 2700 block of 1st Avenue, backs Galligan's rezoning petition and said he will voice his support for it during Monday's council meeting.

"I've lived here a long time, and I've seen that building go from an ice cream parlor to a medical supply store to a consignment shop to a gift shop," he said. "Nothing has ever made it there. I don't know why this man should be denied an opportunity to run a successful business there.

"It all comes down to some people being against guns, plain and simple."

Galligan said he has tried to work with residents to help them gain a better understanding of his proposed business. He has heard residents compare it to a gun and pawn shop, a characterization that he says is misguided. There are no plans to operate a pawn shop, he said.

"You won't be buying a .38 Special for $150 here because I don't want that type of customer," Galligan said. "They've described me as just another gun shop, and I'm not just another gun shop."

Galligan said his firearms business is highly specialized. He has contracts with the federal government to perform maintenance work on government-owned firing ranges in West Virginia and Maryland, and he caters to the sport of long-range target shooting and deer, duck and wild turkey hunters, he said. He also is certified to teach several firearms training classes and would do that in a small room toward the back of his business. The shooting component of the classes would occur at a private range that he owns in Lawrence County, Ohio.

Galligan said he reached out to the neighborhood by sending nearby residents letters that invited them to speak with him. He also said he was going to name the business "The Powder Keg" but removed the name from the front of the building after residents said it was offensive. If his rezoning petition is approved, he said he welcomes residents to help him choose a name that is acceptable.

City Councilman Jim Insco, who also is a Planning Commission member who voted in favor of Galligan's petition, said the council's focus should only be on whether C-1 Neighborhood Commercial is the appropriate zoning designation for the property at 2800 1st Ave.

"We're not charged with the responsibility of looking at the specific business that will move into the property," Insco said. "With that said, my opinion is this building had no business being rezoned for residential. There's a parking garage right behind it and a lot of property around it is commercial, including the building right across from it on 28th Street."

Insco said Galligan's building isn't the only piece of property in the area that he believes is zoned incorrectly. St. Mary's Medical Center, for example, is zoned as R-2 Residential, meaning the hospital is a nonconforming use of the land on which it sits.

Wolfe, the lone vote against Galligan's rezoning petition on the Planning Commission, said he will not veto the petition if it is approved by council members Monday.

"I voted against it because there were a number of concerns from people who live near the building, and some of them came to me and asked me to vote against it," Wolfe said. "I think the process should run its course now. If a majority of council members vote for the rezoning, then I won't interfere."

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