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Hunting group sues Smithtown over weapons restrictions law

In a case that may have implications for other municipalities, Hunters for Deer sues town, saying its law on setbacks and definition of firearms illegally restricts hunting.

Robert Chambers, 64, of East Northport, a member

Robert Chambers, 64, of East Northport, a member of Hunters for Deer, with his bow in Fort Salonga on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2017. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

A Long Island hunting advocacy group is suing the Town of Smithtown, challenging a law restricting weapons use in a case that could have implications for other Suffolk County municipalities with similar laws.

East Quogue-based Hunters for Deer, which connects hunters vetted by the group with Long Island homeowners for hunting on private property, filed suit in New York State Supreme Court in Suffolk County last month over the ordinance, which prohibits shooting firearms within much of the town. The law defines firearms broadly to include guns, bows and even slingshots, and bans their use except on private property with a 500-foot setback from occupied buildings and public places. That’s stricter than state law, which eased the setback requirement in 2014 from 500 to 150 feet for vertical bows and 250 feet for crossbows.

The group’s president, Michael Tessitore, a recreational hunter and professional nuisance trapper, said in a statement that Smithtown’s rules illegally restrict hunting, an activity he said only the state can regulate. “The Smithtown local town law, establishing illegal hunting setbacks and discharge requirements, is inconsistent with the New York State law and regulations, and moreover defeats the applicable sState law’s objective of providing a detailed and comprehensive statewide regulatory framework for the management of wildlife populations,” he said.

In a court filing last month, the town denied the group’s claims and asked that the suit be dismissed. Town attorney Matt Jakubowski did not respond to requests for comment. The DEC declined to comment on the suit.

An estimated 24,500 to 34,600 deer live on Long Island, according to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency — which manages wildlife and regulates hunting — called the activity “the only viable tool available” to control deer population in its most recent deer management plan. The DEC suggested easing restrictions on deer hunting on Long Island in that plan, including legalizing it in Nassau County, where it is currently illegal.

While Long Island hunters take most deer from East End towns, they take dozens each year from Smithtown, often firing bows from tree stands in the town’s large wooded lots. Hunters took at least 63 deer from the town in 2017 and 103 in 2016, according to DEC statistics.

Suffolk County deer hunting takes place across a regulatory patchwork, with laws on hunting and firearms discharge in about 35 of the county’s 43 towns and villages, according to Gary Kalbaugh, a professor at Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law, who has researched the issue. Kalbaugh said in an interview that many of those laws are probably invalid for reasons similar to those that Hunters for Deer alleges, though they have rarely been challenged. “The state occupies the field with hunting,” Kalbaugh said. “They’ve always been consistent that hunting is the prerogative of the DEC to regulate.”

State law does give the towns of Huntington, Babylon, Islip, Brookhaven, Riverhead, Southampton and Smithtown the authority to make the setback requirement more restrictive for firearms use. But where Hunters for Deer might succeed, Kalbaugh said, was with what he called the town’s overly expansive definition of the term. “They tried to pull an end-run by defining firearm as pretty much anything,” he said. “A judge would see that as the transparent gambit it is.”

Thomas McKevitt, a municipal law expert and former state assemblyman elected in November to the Nassau County Legislature, said the key issue was state versus local lawmaking power. The case history of those conflicts, he said, is “all over the map.”

Smithtown’s law

No discharge of a firearm, air rifle, air gun, BB gun, slingshot or bow and arrow within 500 feet of an occupied structure or public place.

DEC hunting regulations

No discharge of a firearm within 500 feet of some occupied structures or public places; 250 feet for a crossbow, 150 feet for a bow. Exceptions granted if you own the structure or have permission from the owner. Exceptions also granted if you are hunting waterfowl over water.

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