ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — Bow hunters in New York no longer have to abide by township rules that are more restrictive than those of the state after the Court of Appeals struck down one such ordinance Thursday.
The two-page opinion, while scant on details, skirts the issue of whether state hunting laws preempt local ordinances. At bottom, though, it upholds an underlying court decision that did just that. As a result, towns and villages throughout the state with harsher rules on bow hunting may have to change their rules.
Hunters for Deer, a nonprofit “dedicated to protecting the rights of hunters, as well as property owners,” brought the case in 2017, challenging an ordinance by Smithtown, a densely packed suburb of about 117,000 residents, that limits bow hunting to 150 feet from any dwelling, school, park, beach, playground or outdoor recreational area.
The ordinance, passed in 2014, was more restrictive than a similar regulation used by the state limiting bow hunting to 500 feet from such locations.
In its lawsuit, Hunters for Deer claimed the town’s ordinance was overly restrictive and preempted by the state’s own hunting regulations. New York state also filed an amicus brief in the case backing the original 500-foot setback and supporting the hunters.
Christian Killoran, an attorney representing the hunters, is a hunter himself who uses both bows and firearms. In an interview Thursday, he said townships throughout the state have passed setback regulations similar to Smithtown's that will now have to be repealed.
After contacting a number of them, Killoran said he's been getting “mixed results,” though some have voluntarily removed such laws off the books. “We wanted to go after Smithtown,” he said, noting it could be one of the best cases since not all townships are endowed to regulate firearms. “We felt by going after the hardest case, that would be the most comprehensive approach,” he said.
During arguments in the case last month, Smithtown urged the New York Court of Appeals to reverse the lower court decision that struck down its ordinance. Its claim that municipalities have the power to create more restrictive setbacks than those imposed appeared to persuade the court, with several judges questioning how a new minimum setback conflicted with the state’s 500-foot maximum setbacks.
The high court nevertheless sided unanimously with the hunting group. In its unanimous decision, the judges skirted whether there was any conflict with existing state law, saying “the only question properly before us … is whether Town Law 130 (27) authorizes defendant Town of Smithtown to regulate the discharge of ‘bows’ pursuant to its authority to regulate the discharge of ‘firearms’ under that statute.”
Killoran, the attorney for the hunters, said the town essentially dropped the ball in their arguments by not bringing up the preemption issue. “I wish they had, it would have been even better if they did,” he said, adding the appellate court’s earlier ruling on preemption is now “the law of the land.”
The Court of Appeals found that the term “firearm” applies only to pistols and rifles and not to longbows or crossbows. In a footnote, the unanimous decision declines to state whether a town has the authority to regulate a more restrictive setback distance for the discharge of bows pursuant to its municipal home rule authority or whether the state’s hunting laws preempt such town laws.
Smithtown attorney Matthew Jakubowski declined to immediately comment on the ruling.
Michael Tessitore, president of Hunters for Deer, told Courthouse News he was glad it was the Smithtown case that made it to the Court of Appeals when his group has gone after other towns, like Sag Harbor, for similarly restrictive bow-hunting rules. “We knew that Smithtown was arrogant enough and had the money to push their way on this,” Tessitore said in an interview.
Hunters for Deer will now send letters to every town and village in the state warning them to strike such laws off the books. “This is now a statewide issue,” said Tessitore, who resides in East Quogue. “We’re going to put everybody on notice.”
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