The Westwood School moved into its current location about 15 years ago, repurposing an Illinois Tool Works warehouse on Proton Road in a semi-industrial corner of Farmers Branch. The neighborhood was drab, all squat warehouses and blocky, single-story office buildings, but it was becoming a hub for North Dallas private schools. The Greenhill School sits directly across Midway Road as does Parish Episcopal School, which turned an old office building into its upper-school campus around the time Westwood was moving in. And for the next decade and a half, all was peaceful.
Then, in late September, Westwood officials learned of plans by an outfit called Texas Legends to turn an old post office two buildings to the south into a gun-training center, complete with two indoor gun ranges and a gun shop. Because the gun range would require a zoning change, notices had gone out to neighboring property owners a couple of weeks before. But Westwood's property line is about 330 feet from the site, just outside the 250-foot notification area. "A neighboring business told us," says Westwood marketing director Kristin Pelletier. "When we found out, we had less than 24 hours to get to the planning and zoning meeting with Farmers Branch."
At that meeting, Westwood officials urged denial of a specific use permit for Texas Legends on the grounds that the site posed an undue risk to students, but the Planning & Zoning Commission voted 5-2 for approval. The matter goes before the Farmers Branch City Council Tuesday evening for a vote, and Westwood is doubling down on its opposition. A Change.org petition organized by "concerned Westwood parents and community" and calling for the zoning change to be rejected is right at its 1,000-signature goal. On Monday, the school itself did the same in a press release.
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Pelletier says the school isn't opposed to guns per se; "We support and encourage and defend the Second Amendment right" for individuals to carry firearms and even teach it in classrooms. It's just that having a shooting range and gun store so close would make them uncomfortable. "Our primary concern, first and foremost, is the health and safety of our students," Pelletier says. At the zoning hearing, parents and school representatives expressed concern about stray bullets and noise and lead contamination, but the school's public pronouncements have been rather vague. In a statement, head of school Heather Lourcey said the range would "disrupt the development and learning environment of our students and potentially put them at risk.” In an interview, Pelletier said that "there are a lot of unknowns with this building," adding that It "adds another level of risk for our children ... We have children as young as toddlers [at Westwood], and the proposed location is within sight of our building and our parking lots."
Greg Taggart, a firearms instructor who is part of the group behind Texas Legends and drew up the site plan for the firing range submitted to the city, characterizes the school's reaction as absurd. "The walls of the building we're in are 1-foot-thick concrete," he says. "It was literally built to withstand a nuclear blast. No bullets are going to leak out of our building." Similarly, the range will be equipped with air-filtration systems to ensure that lead particulates don't waft outside the building; in fact, the air the range pumps out will be cleaner than the air that comes in. The facility will also comply with the city of Farmers Branch's noise ordinance, which limits sound levels at the property line to 70 decibels, or 10 decibels less than a typical phone dial tone. Taggart likens the impact of noise from the range on the school to someone holding up a phone at the opposite end of a football field; certainly, he says, the noise from the range will be less than the railroad spur and the truck-maintenance facility already behind the school. Besides, Taggart asks, what belongs more in a light industrial district: a gun range or a school? "Planning 101, light industrial zones are where you put indoor gun ranges."
Taggart says he reached out to opponents following the zoning hearing in July, but the discussions were unproductive. "We expected a rational response to what we believe is a rational and technically defensible use," Taggart says. "And I have learned that some people are not rational."
Pelletier says the school and parents are organizing to ensure a big turnout at Tuesday's City Council meeting, as a public outcry is the only real leverage they have. The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 puts up a 1,000-foot, gun-free barrier around schools but carves out a broad exception "if the individual possessing the firearm is licensed to do so by the State in which the school zone is located." In other words, the ban applies only to people who were already carrying a gun illegally. The school would have an easier case if Texas Legends were peddling booze, the sale of which can be banned in a 1,000-foot area, instead of guns. Even if the City Council doesn't vote no, Pelletier hopes for a delay so the issue can be studied more thoroughly.
To Taggart, such an outcome will mean that the Farmers Branch City Council will have caved to a big-money outsider PR campaign rather than making a common-sense assessment of the facts with an eye toward what's best for the town. "One of my big beefs is we have the school who has $7 million in the bank, made up of well-to-do people from Highland Park or North Dallas coming in trying to one, squash an up-and-coming small business — and these are people who don't live in Farmers Branch, who don't pay taxes in Farmers Branch. And the tone is, you know, 'We're rich and important and we're going to tell you what to do,'" Taggart says.