Proposed local sporting goods store faces backlash over gun sales

Lucy Walker

A proposal to turn a storefront at 742 North Hoosac Road into a sporting goods store has sparked controversy. (Nicholas Goldrosen/The Williams Record)

Following a contentious hearing, the Williamstown Zoning Board of Appeals voted on September 19 to extend the permit process for a proposed sporting and hunting goods store on North Hoosac Road to October 17. The approval process has been fraught in controversy due to the owner’s expressed interest in selling collectible firearms in a residential zone, which is located just over a mile’s walk from the center of the College’s campus. 

Billy Preite, the store’s owner, applied for the permit seeking to change the non-conforming use status of an unoccupied former general store on North Hoosac Road in August. The commercial use of the property pre-dated the zoning laws of the area, and therefore is not required to follow zoning regulations, though the board can reject the permit on the grounds that the establishment of the store would be “substantially detrimental” to the wellbeing of the community. 

Several residents and local activists have expressed concern that the sale of firearms would be inappropriate for operation in a residential neighborhood. 

“I, for one, would not want to be faced with weapons that can kill when walking from the school bus to my house. If the store is going to sell any guns, it should not be in a residential zone,” wrote resident Arlene Kirsch in a letter to the zoning board. 

Though Preite intends to sell antique firearms, some residents are concerned that could have a snowball effect, resulting in the sale of weapons that are not part of the initial criteria. Resident Bradford Verter wrote in a letter to the zoning board, “Selling only a few firearms is like being only a little bit pregnant: the quantity is irrelevant, and once a permit is granted there will be no means of controlling growth.” Preite has indicated that he might be amenable to not selling firearms, but that he would have to examine the market first. 

Other residents have expressed support for the permitting of the store. According to town Director of Community Development Andrew Groff, many locals involved in fishing and hunting believe that there’s a “significant amount of tourism dollars that are coming to the Berkshires that aren’t being spent here.” 

One local resident, Lindsay Neathawk, wrote in her letter to the zoning board that, “as a local business owner within 200 yards from the proposed shop, and resident with elementary school aged children, I whole heartily [sic] support this petition you have before you…I have full confidence in the safety of us as neighbors and fellow business owners and the laws that our state has for gun safety.”

According to Groff, the zoning board seriously considers the concerns of local residents in determining what is substantially detrimental. “The board felt there was a lot of information needed in order to make a decision,” said Groff. “They often extend the permit process in the cases of controversial projects.” 

Details such as hours of operation, effects on traffic patterns and more specific details on the types of merchandise sold will be factored into the decision process. The zoning board has additionally asked Groff to look into case law to help determine the meaning of “substantially detrimental” so that they can bring more certainty to the review process. 

Jim Kolesar ’72, assistant to the president for community and government affairs, indicated that the College would be taking a hands-off approach to the process. “The issue seems to be the Zoning Board of Appeals’ judgment of possible adverse effects on a neighborhood in which the college has no direct presence,” Kolesar told the Record.