Pressures grow against gun store, shooting range

My coverage of the opening of a controversial gun range in the Littleton Independent.

Lawsuit is latest salvo against relocation of Triple J Armory

August 20, 2018

A lawsuit from the SouthPark Owners Association is the latest salvo in a series of mounting pressures against Triple J Armory's plans to build a gun store and shooting range in the SouthPark neighborhood near McLellan Reservoir.

Triple J, which currently operates a gun store in a strip mall at 311 E. County Line Road, just east of Broadway, is working to move into a building at 8152 Southpark Lane, where they have begun construction on an indoor shooting range in a building that previously housed a light manufacturing operation.

Neighbors have raised objections, saying the store — which was targeted three times in the course of a year by smash-and-grab burglars who twice made off with numerous guns from their current location — is a bad fit for a neighborhood that's home to daycare centers and schools.

The company also ran afoul of the City of Littleton, which issued a cease-and-desist letter in June after finding that Triple J was building its indoor shooting range without a permit.

Now, the company faces a lawsuit from the SouthPark Owners Association, or SPOA — which oversees business activity in the office park — alleging that Triple J never sought required approval for modifications to the building, and that the company ignored an earlier cease-and-desist letter from SPOA.

Triple J's owners, however, say neighbors' concerns are unwarranted, the city's permitting process is too slow, and that they were operating under a belief that they had already obtained

SPOA's blessing to build.

“We feel our civil rights have been violated,” said JD Murphree, one of Triple J's co-owners. “We are being discriminated against. People aren't respecting our right to free business. They're not respecting our right to the Second Amendment.”

New neighbors

Guns aren't the problem, said Farima Nemat, who owns Primrose School, a private preschool around the corner from Triple J's new location.

“This business has been the target of violent criminals three times,” Nemat said. “Is our perimeter safe? What if the robbers jumped our fence to get away? I can't fortify my school, but hopefully as a community we can avoid bringing this sort of business that attracts dangerous criminals.”

Triple J's approach thus far is unnerving to Rebecca Askew, the president of the Highline Crossing homeowners association, representing a cohousing community a stone's throw from the new location.

“We heard about their past, with the break-ins, then we found out they weren't pulling permits,” Askew said. “That was enough to make us concerned about the process and whether our community is safe. What precautions will they take, and how transparent do they plan to be?”

Askew said she and others are also concerned about what safety measures will be taken to ensure live fire won't leave the shooting range.

The range will adhere to standards recommended by the National Rifle Association, JD said, with 16-inch thick concrete walls.

Nemat and Askew are among many community members who have reached out to city officials with concerns, said city councilmember Carol Fey, who represents the district.

She said the store's past, with three attempted or completed burglaries, seems beyond the pale.

“Once would be enough to make neighbors uneasy, but more than once seems out of control,” Fey said.

Not all neighbors are upset.

“I would greatly appreciate a close location to practice my shooting skills,” area resident Tom Bonnot said by email. “The only reason to not allow this to occur is due to an unreasonable hatred of guns.”

Safety measures

The new store will employ a wide range of high-tech security measures to thwart burglars, said JD Murphree and his father, Triple J co-owner Dennis Murphree.

Though the Murphrees asked that many of their security devices and countermeasures not go in print, they said the nature of the new building would reduce its desirability as a target for burglars, with its elevated entrance and large planters out front that could prevent a repeat occurrence of vehicles being used to bash in the front entrance.

“Are we a target? Sure, but so are a lot of places,” Dennis said. “So is PDA Road Gear.”

PDA Road Gear is an auto accessory store near the new location, owned by SPOA director Pat Dunahay.

JD said they “learned their lesson” after the previous three incidents, and that the landlord at their current location was resistant to installing security devices. Thieves drove a Jeep over concrete posts installed in front of the store in the most recent burglary, in May 2017.

Nobody has been arrested in connection with the Triple J burglaries, JD said, though he said some of the stolen guns have been recovered from other crime scenes.

Singling out Triple J for its burglaries is unfair, JD said, because the crimes were part of a wave of such thefts in 2016 and 2017.

City action

The city couldn't deny the Murphrees the right to open a shooting range and gun store in the building even if it wanted to, said City Manager Mark Relph.

The site's zoning allows retail and “indoor recreation,” Relph said, which includes shooting ranges.

The city issued a cease-and-desist order to stop construction on the gun range in June, according to documents obtained from the city, and hired a third-party consultant at Triple J's expense to mandate safety measures before work could continue.

JD said they regret building without a permit, but had grown frustrated with the slow pace of Littleton's permit approval process.

“We made a calculated risk,” JD said. “We got caught, we paid the fee, we got our hands slapped, and we've agreed with the city to move forward amicably.”

They plan to comply with all of the consultant's recommendations, JD said, most of which have to do with materials and construction methods.

The area's zoning is outdated, said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman.

“When this property was zoned more than 20 years ago, there were no schools in the area,” Brinkman said. “At this point we don't have a way to stop (Triple J). It's private property rights. What we can, must and will do is ensure it's done to the highest level of safety as possible. If we were to deny his property rights, he would sue us for that. And win.”

Lawsuit filed

The city's requirements notwithstanding, Triple J still has not submitted required architectural modification plans for the shooting range to the SouthPark Owners Association, said Max Minnig, a lawyer representing SPOA, prompting the association to file a lawsuit to halt construction.

JD asserts Triple J has been above board with SPOA.

“We have done everything they asked us to do,” JD said. “We received an email last October, and have had phone calls since, saying we were good to go.”

“We have a significant difference of opinion on that issue,” Minnig said.

The Murphrees were invited to speak at the SPOA board meeting held July 31, but didn't attend, Minnig said.

A hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 5.

In the meantime, Triple J is eager to ingratiate itself to the community, JD said.

“Call us,” JD said. “We'll sit down for coffee. We'll talk about the precautions we're taking. Nobody should have to feel unsafe because we're here. We're just a family trying to make our own way.”


Shooting range moves closer to opening

Lawsuits and countersuits ongoing; neighbors angry; city defends process

November 2, 2018

Bullets aren't yet flying at a controversial shooting range in the works in south Littleton, but the lawsuits sure are.

Triple J Armory is in the final stages of gaining approval for a shooting range at 8152 SouthPark Lane. The family-owned company, which has operated a gun store at 311 E. County Line Road since 2012, recently moved their retail store to the new location near McLellan Reservoir.

Though city staff have approved Triple J's permit to complete construction of the shooting range, it had not been picked up as of Nov. 2.

Progress on the shooting range has been at a crawl since June, when the City of Littleton issued a stop-work order after discovering that Triple J's owners were building the indoor shooting range without an approved permit.

The project also drew the ire of several neighboring communities and schools, which called the area inappropriate for a shooting range, citing concerns over safety and noise.

The SouthPark Owners Association, or SPOA, which oversees business activity in the neighborhood, filed a lawsuit against Triple J in August, alleging that Triple J didn't go through a proper approval process, and seeking an injunction to halt work on the project until Triple J submitted architectural change proposals.

A judge rejected SPOA's request for an in injunction in September, saying Triple J reasonably believed it had SPOA's blessing to build, citing an October 2017 email from covenant control officer Channing Odell, which read in part that SPOA “has no objection to the proposed use of the building in question as a retail gun sale/shooting range.”

Triple J filed a countersuit against SPOA in September, saying Triple J proceeded with a lengthy and expensive construction project under the good-faith belief that it was approved.

Triple J is seeking unspecified damages, remuneration and attorneys' fees in the lawsuit. Representatives of SPOA declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing litigation. Triple J co-owner JD Murphree also declined to comment.

Fighting city hall

Meanwhile, a group of neighbors who have led the charge against the shooting range have hired a lawyer of their own.

Residents of Highline Crossing, a “cohousing” community just south of Triple J's new location, have emerged as the public face of opposition to the shooting range, with residents regularly appearing before city council, condemning the city's business license and permitting process for what they call inadequate public input on a business they fear will compromise their health and safety.

Highline Crossing has not yet filed suit against any entities regarding the shooting range yet, said Rebecca Askew, the president of Highline Crossing's homeowner's association, but said the neighborhood is “looking at their options.”

The city held a public meeting at the end of August at Mission Hills Church in which officials reiterated their position: Triple J's request for a business license and building permit in South Park was a use by right on private property, and the city had no recourse to deny the request. The city subsequently published a website detailing updates on the status of the project.

The Highline Crossing HOA was one of several signatories on a letter sent to city manager Mark Relph on Oct. 10, requesting an in-person meeting to discuss further concerns. Askew said she and the other signatories received no response to the request.

Relph said he was on vacation when his office received the letter requesting a meeting, but was also cautious about a meeting while sensitive litigation was underway between SPOA and Triple J.

“I have to be careful about the city's legal liability here,” Relph said. “So far the litigation doesn't involve the city, but if it does, there are taxpayer funds at risk.”

The letter's signatories received a response from Relph offering to consider a meeting on to-be-determined topics within hours of Relph's interview with the Independent on Nov. 1.

Catalyst for change

Relph said the Triple J situation is a catalyst for change: He is working to have building permits added to the city's Development Activity List website, an interactive page that displays information about development around the city. Relph also said he'd like to see the city's relationship with SPOA formalized, so the entities can work together more closely in the future.

City staff and elected officials will begin reviewing code surrounding gun ranges this winter, Relph said, including whether they should be subject to conditional use permits and additional safety procedures.

The city will be taking up code modifications in the near future, Relph said. A letter from city attorney Steve Kemp to council, published on the city website on Nov. 1, says that council will review the appropriateness of other zoning locales that allow firing ranges.

Relph pushed back against the assertion that the city should have allowed more public input before approving Triple J's move.

“I know of no city with a public appeal process for a building permit,” Relph said. “Once zoning is set, we are bound by private property rights set by the United States Constitution. Do I like a firing range in that area? I don't think it fits well. But it's the city's job to protect people's rights, and we don't have a choice.”

Relph added that the city required additional inspection and modification of Triple J's safety and noise control efforts before approving their permit, and will require a final live-fire test to determine compliance with city noise ordinances before making the final sign-off on the range.

Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman said the city will ensure that Triple J stays in compliance with city code, and questioned the need for a task force as requested by Highline Crossing residents.

“I don't know enough about why there needs to be a task force,” Brinkman said. “We already have code enforcement and police officers.”

Brinkman said she hopes the Triple J situation encourages residents to get involved in the city's efforts to revamp its comprehensive plan, which will guide future development efforts and code and zoning changes.

“Should we have been working on a new complan earlier?” Brinkman said. “Yes, but we're doing it now. I hope this process helps bring things to the surface that we need to fix.”


City could update rules on shooting ranges

Proposed ordinance would require future public hearings, safety measures

December 3, 2018

Future shooting ranges in Littleton would have to go through a much stricter permit approval process under the terms of a draft ordinance in the early stages of consideration by city council.

The proposal comes on the heels of a controversial planned shooting range on hiatus in the SouthPark neighborhood that spawned a flurry of litigation. Triple J Armory, a family-owned gun store, drew the ire of neighbors in summer 2018 after starting construction on a shooting range in a warehouse near McLellan Reservoir without city permits. After months of legal wrangling, the city issued a permit for the range, though the owners had not picked up the permit as of Nov. 29. Triple J has opened a retail store on the site.

Neighbors alleged the city's zoning codes and permit approval process were obsolete for dealing with shooting range applications in an increasingly densely populated city.

Shooting ranges would have to apply for conditional use permits and meet a variety of criteria before they could be approved, according to a draft of the ordinance presented at the Nov. 27 city council study session by city attorney Steve Kemp.

The ordinance would require a public hearing on all shooting range applications. Owners would be required to lock up all on-site guns in a safe or vault every night, as well as a variety of other safety and security measures. Shooting ranges would not be allowed immediately adjacent to residential zones.

“We'd see a police department review,” Kemp said. “We'd look at parking, at compatibility with adjacent uses. Many factors would be considered.”

Outdoor shooting ranges would face far stricter rules, including a setback of at least a mile from residences in the line of fire — a distance that Kemp said would effectively render almost the entire city off-limits.

The ordinance has a long way to go before final approval — next it will go to the city's Planning Commission, then go back before city council for hearings in February.

The ordinance would have no bearing on Triple J, which would be grandfathered into existing laws and permits, said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman.

Currently, shooting ranges are permitted under the city's “indoor recreation” use definitions, Kemp said, which apply to B-2 and B-3 zones, as well as in planned developments, which make up roughly half the city's 14 square miles.

The definition allowed Triple J to apply for a business license as a use by right, Kemp said, meaning the city had no recourse to hold public hearings on its approval.

The ordinance would be a welcome change, Brinkman said.

“Shooting ranges were never the intent for certain areas of the community,” Brinkman said. “The code we have was written many years ago, and clearly it's time we update it. I would hope people feel they have protection against they feel aren't appropriate near schools or children.”

It's too bad this process wasn't undertaken sooner, Brinkman said, but something had to trigger it.

“Cities don't just sit down and review all their codes in all their zones regularly,” Brinkman said. “There are unintended consequences that come up.”

As for Triple J, Brinkman said the city will strictly enforce noise and parking regulations around the shooting range.

The ordinance has the support of Highline Crossing, a “cohousing” community near Triple J's new location that led opposition to the range, said Rebecca Askew, Highline's HOA president.

“It's a step in the right direction, though it's a little late for our community,” Askew said. “I love the idea of a public hearing. I wish this scrutiny would've happened for our situation, but we want what's best for the city at large.”

Triple J Armory owner JD Murphree declined to comment for this article.


Construction resumes on Littleton shooting range

Lawsuit settlement drops last barrier to Triple J project in SouthPark

December 27, 2018

Construction has resumed on a shooting range in south Littleton, after the South Park Owners Association settled its ongoing lawsuit with Triple J Armory.

The settlement, the terms of which were not immediately available, drops the last legal barrier to the completion of the stalled shooting range under construction since early 2018 at 8152 Southpark Lane.

“It seems as though they're going to try to be as friendly and neighborly as I guess we could hope for,” Pat Dunahay, the director of the South Park Owners Association, or SPOA, said of Triple J.

The lawsuit alleged that Triple J failed to seek required approval through SPOA. The dismissal filing has not been filed with the Arapahoe County Court yet, according to a court administrator. SPOA was required to pay Triple J's legal fees, Dunahay said, though he declined to give a number.

Triple J's owners could not immediately be reached for comment, but a post on the company's Facebook page reads in part: “After months of red tape and bogus lawsuits, we can finally get back to construction! …[If] any of our `other' fans are reading this, yes, we have a building permit, and no, you don't need to call the city and complain.”

Triple J Armory, a family-owned gun store previously located in a smaller space on County Line Road, opened a retail store in the South Park business district in fall 2018, but their efforts to build a shooting range saw repeated delays.

The company began building the range without required city permits, and drew the ire of neighbors who said the business was incompatible with surrounding uses, including schools and a cohousing development.

City officials were powerless to withhold a business license for the range, said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman, because shooting ranges are a permitted use in the site's zoning.

The project drew scrutiny from the city, however, with staff mandating a variety of safety and security measures, according to documents published on the city website. The city issued a building permit for the shooting range in November, and Triple J picked up the permit in early December.

“I'm glad it's over,” Brinkman said of the legal wrangling over the range. “We can move on and work together to get this done in the best way possible for all involved. We'll be very watchful as they build this thing out.”

The city will keep a close eye on concerns over noise, traffic and parking, Brinkman said.

The fracas is spurring change at the city, Brinkman said. City council is in the process of crafting an ordinance that would significantly raise the bar to approve future shooting ranges, including mandating public hearings, and the city is seeking to formalize its relationship with SPOA, requiring communication between the two entities before proposed projects in the business park are given the green light by the city.

In the meantime, Dunahay said he toured the under-construction shooting range, and was satisfied with the precautions being taken.

“I was pretty impressed with the level of security of the weapons and ammo,” Dunahay said. “We better get along with them. They're not going away.”


Shooting range stalled again by new lawsuit

Triple J Armory's parking inadequate, neighbor alleges

April 8, 2019

EDIT:  Judge Frederick Martinez ruled on April 8 that Triple J can resume building the shooting range, calling the parking lawsuit disingenuous. 

A controversial gun store in south Littleton is facing another lawsuit, again stalling out the owners' plans to complete a shooting range that has drawn the ire of neighbors.

Triple J Armory, which moved its retail operation into a building at 8152 South Park Lane in October, is facing a lawsuit by RHR Investment, which owns 8122 South Park Lane, an adjacent building home to several commercial tenants.

At issue is parking. RHR, owned by mother and son team Renata and Ron Lilischkies, alleges that Triple J does not have adequate parking to satisfy the terms of a covenant agreement that governs both properties.

In a complaint filed in the suit, RHR argues that owners fear Triple J customers will inevitably begin parking in a group of spaces shared by the buildings, likely violating RHR's prohibition on guns on its premises.

Triple J co-owner J.D. Murphree, however, testified in an April 5 court hearing that both the City of Littleton and the South Park Owners Association — which settled its own lawsuit with Triple J in the final days of 2018 — signed off on Triple J's parking arrangements, and argued that RHR's calculations included the full square footage of the indoor shooting range, rather than the number of stalls in the range.

“Nobody will be downrange while people are shooting,” Murphree said at the hearing, calling the downrange area a “no man's land” that should be immaterial to parking calculations.

RHR's lawsuit argues Triple J misrepresented how much of their building will be devoted to retail operations in order to downplay the amount of parking needed. Attorney Jonah Hunt pressed Murphree about a mismatch between floor area ratios Triple J provided to the City of Littleton versus numbers asserted in the lawsuit. Murphree conceded that one of the two sets of numbers "may be inaccurate."

Triple J's lawyer Colin Diehl argued that the Lilischkies' lawsuit was disingenuous, citing emails Ron Lilischkies sent to the South Park Owners Association and comments he made to Littleton City Council objecting to a gun store and shooting range as a bad fit for the area.

The suit has stalled Triple J's buildout, Murphree testified, because his bank placed him in default on his loan after being informed of the filing, leaving him unable to pay contractors building the range.

Triple J has spent $1.2 million so far building the range, according to a court filing, and had to postpone a planned March 9 grand opening after the suit was filed.

Triple J has been in the news for years. It was the target of two completed burglaries and another attempted burglary in its old location off of County Line Road.

The City of Littleton issued a stop-work order on Triple J's new location in 2018 after finding the company had been constructing its shooting range without permits.

Neighbors, particularly residents of the nearby Highline Crossing cohousing community, have maintained a drumbeat of opposition to the project, arguing the shooting range is too close to nearby schools and day cares, and will cause noise and safety concerns.

Neither Murphree nor the Lilischkies would comment for this article, citing ongoing litigation.


No new complaints about shooting range, officials say

Triple J Armory could get even bigger despite new law

July 8, 2019

A south Littleton shooting range that has been the target of controversy over the past year is officially open for business, and may get even bigger.

Despite dire predictions from neighbors over concerns about noise and parking issues, city officials say they have received no complaints about Triple J Armory's shooting range during its first full month of operation.

“I hope that stays the same,” said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman. “They're behaving so far. They should be able to operate within the guidelines. They put a lot of money into soundproofing, and as long as they continue to follow the rules, noise stays within an acceptable range and parking is managed, I have no issues with it.”

Neither City Manager Mark Relph nor Community Development Director Jennifer Henninger were aware of any citizen complaints against Triple J since the range's soft opening in early June. The range held a grand opening ceremony on June 29. Triple J's retail gun store at the location opened last year.

Triple J's shooting range may get even bigger, as the company is working on obtaining a permit to expand the number of lanes in the range from 11 to 20, city officials said. The permit application was filed just days before the enactment of a law limiting shooting ranges in Littleton that Brinkman said she had hoped would constrict the range's final size.

Triple J co-owner J.D. Murphree did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

Legal wrangling

Triple J, a family-owned gun store that started in a strip mall near Broadway and County Line Road in 2012, drew controversy in 2018 when neighbors objected to plans to build a larger store and shooting range at 8152 Southpark Lane.

Residents of the nearby Highline Crossing cohousing community led the charge against the range, saying it was too close to homes and schools, citing safety fears after Triple J's old location was the target of two completed and one attempted smash-and-grab burglaries, as well as concerns about noise and parking.

The City of Littleton issued a stop-work order against the range last August after discovering Triple J began constructing the range without permits. City officials mandated a variety of safety and security measures before finally approving the range, saying the site's zoning left them powerless to flat-out deny permits.

The South Park Owners Association, which governs the business park Triple J is part of, filed suit against Triple J in 2018, alleging Triple J did not receive proper clearance to begin building the range. The parties ended up settling for an undisclosed amount.

Mother and son team Renata and Ron Lilischkes, who own a commercial building next door to the shooting range, filed suit against Triple J in January, alleging the business infringed on their parking. A judge denied an injunction against the range in April, saying the Lilischkes appeared to be motivated by opposition to the nature of the business, not parking concerns. The suit was not dismissed, however, and is currently scheduled for a four-day jury trial in December. The Lilischkes did not respond to a request for comment.

Littleton City Council enacted a law in May that requires a higher bar to approve future shooting ranges. The law also limited the ability of existing shooting ranges to expand. Murphree told council at a hearing on the law that expansion had been in Triple J's plans from the beginning. The company applied for a permit to expand to 20 lanes days later, before the law took effect.

The permit application is currently being reviewed by city staff, said city permit specialist Ernie Rose.

Fatigued by the fight

Some of those who sought to stop Triple J from completing the shooting range say they're worn out on fighting.

“People feel rather defeated,” said Rebecca Askew, president of the Highline Crossing homeowners' association, said of residents of the neighborhood. “We should've known it was going to happen. All we did was delay the inevitable.”

The neighborhood has worked with the Littleton Police Department to come up with safety strategies regarding their concerns over the range, Askew said, though some residents are still ill at ease.

“Everyone's pretty skittish,” Askew said, saying residents believe they've heard gunshots coming from the vicinity of the range, though one instance turned out to be a teenager shooting off fireworks.

Still, she hopes Highline Crossing and Triple J can get along.

“Highline can be good neighbors, I know that much,” Askew said. “We just want to live in our homes safely without issue.”

Pat Dunahay, the director of the South Park Owners Association, said if he could do it all over again, he'd try harder to help Triple J find another location. Triple J's owners initially approached Dunahay about a custom ground-up build in a location further from residences, he said, but the plans proved too expensive.

“I guess we could've worked harder to help make that happen,” Dunahay said. “It wouldn't have had any negative impact on neighbors, because there basically weren't any. Maybe we could've offered financing assistance.”

At this point, Dunahay said, he hopes Triple J is “successful, quiet, and part of South Park in the best way possible.”

Dunahay said he was heartened by the city's new ordinance raising the bar to approve new shooting ranges.

“The most important piece, I think, is that affected parties and neighbors need to be notified properly” of new shooting ranges, Dunahay said.

Brinkman said that despite the new law, Triple J seemed determined to build out to 20 lanes, and she wasn't surprised when they slipped in under the wire to apply for the expansion permit.

“They told us if it wasn't approved, they were going to sue us,” Brinkman said. “They said they felt it was a taking of their property rights.”

The bottom line, Brinkman said, is the whole brouhaha speaks to the need for citizen engagement in the city's forthcoming efforts to overhaul city code and land use regulations.

“As times and people and lifestyles change, we need to look at laws and rules that no longer reflect current situations,” Brinkman said. “What we're doing with code and land use is exactly what we should be doing. We'll have what we need going forward, and that's the most I can hope for right now.”