A ruling says Smithtown cannot regulate bow hunting on private property.

A ruling says Smithtown cannot regulate bow hunting on private property. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

A New York State appeals court has struck down a Smithtown law that effectively barred bow hunting in much of the town. 

The Aug. 19 ruling by the four-judge panel of the Second Judicial Department Appeals Court means that local regulations on bow hunting for deer and other game on private property in Suffolk and other downstate counties could be vulnerable to challenge. 

The ruling could be significant for some communities on Suffolk’s North Shore that have restricted hunting even as the deer population appears to be increasing, a concession to residents who call the practice barbaric. Other residents say hunting is needed to control the deer population, which consumes undergrowth and landscaping and may contribute to the spread of tick-borne disease. New York State does not permit bow hunting for deer in Nassau County.   

East Quogue-based Hunters for Deer, which connects hunters with Long Island homeowners for hunting on private property, sued Smithtown in 2017 over town code forbidding firearms discharge within 500 feet of occupied buildings, parks and beaches. That section of town code employs an expansive understanding of the word firearm, including not just weapons that use gunpowder but also air guns, slingshots and bows. 

In 2018, a state Supreme Court judge ruled that Smithtown could limit bow hunting under a law that permits town regulation of discharge of firearms, but the appeals court said the town’s law was preempted by New York State Environmental Conservation law that lists setback for crossbows at 250 feet and longbows at 150 feet. 

The town “unpersuasively contends that it is free to define for itself the meaning of ‘firearm,’ ” the appeals court said. State law includes a definition of the word that “plainly does not encompass a bow and arrow,” the court said. 

“Municipalities just can’t restrict bow hunting,” said Gary Kalbaugh, a professor at Hofstra University's Maurice A. Deane School of Law who has written about the issue. “The state has already occupied the square.”

About 35 of Suffolk County’s 43 towns and villages have laws on hunting and firearms discharge, according to Kalbaugh’s research. Of those, only “a handful” specifically regulate bow hunting, Kalbaugh said, and some may amend their laws on their own. “I don’t imagine most of them will want to wait until they’re sued,” he said. 

Smithtown officials did not respond to a request for comment, and it was not clear if the town would appeal. John C. Armentano, a vice president for Hunters for Deer, said the appeals judges’ ruling was “decisive” and “strengthens our position.” Barring a successful appeal, Smithtown’s Town Council will have to hold a public hearing to amend its code, he said.  

The mayor of Head of the Harbor Village, whose code prohibits most firearms discharge and also defines a bow as a firearm, said in an email that officials there will remove "bow and arrow" from the definition of a firearm if the appeals court decision is upheld. "We are aware of the recent decision and our Board will discuss it at the upcoming work session," Mayor Douglas Dahlgard said in an email. 

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