CHATHAM, NJ - Chatham Township residents came out to vehemently oppose an amendment that could have led to bear hunting in specific areas, convincing the Chatham Township Committee to reject the adoption of the measure, 3-2, on Thursday night.
In the longest, and, perhaps, the most contentious Chatham Township Committee meeting of the year, the township committee wrapped up its business for 2017 a few minutes before midnight. A vote on an amendment "Allowing the Use of Firearms for Deer and Bear Hunting" was preceded by approximately 90 minutes of public discussion.
Mayor Curt Ritter and committee member Kevin Sullivan voted for adoption while Karen Swartz, Tayfun Selen and Mike Kelly voted against it.
The public comment portion of the meeting was contentious, with members of the public shouting from the audience about other issues, and some demanding Ritter answer their questions as if he was being interrogated on the witness stand. Ritter noted the acrimony pointed at him through social media posts.
Mayor Ritter defended what he said was an amendment to protect citizens when the amendment was introduced on Nov. 8
The bear hunting amendment had been introduced on Nov. 8 and passed with no dissenting votes, but there was plenty of opposition on social media leading up to the meeting and about 15 residents in attendance to oppose its passage during the public portion of the meeting on Thursday.
Mayor Ritter had provided the impetus for the amendment following a 2013 incident in which it was reported by a parent that a bear approached children at a school bus stop. According to Ritter, the children had climbed into a mother's van to avoid contact with the bear.
"This ordinance is designed with the public safety in mind," Ritter said. "Black bears are docile until they're not."
Chatham Township Police Chief Steven Hennelly was asked to explain how the amended ordinance would work and answered questions from the public before the vote. Hennelly said that although he receives numerous calls on bear sightings, he had never encountered an aggressive bear in his 30 years of law enforcement.
Resident Bob Higgins urged a delay in the vote since the window for hunting bears this year would end in two days and it wouldn't be able to go into effect until October. Others asked that the issue be studied more before a decision was made and said that they feared hunters with guns near their homes.
Bob Hander of Huron Drive came armed with a lot of research on accidental shootings and made the argument that New Jersey and Chatham Township are too densely populated to allow hunting. Hander said that there are unintended consequences to firing a rifle and produced a newspaper article from 1976 when a Chatham Township man died on Shunpike Road in a freak shooting in which he was killed by a bullet fired miles away.
Hander also documented more recent incidents in which a man accidentally shot and killed his neighbor in Sherman, N.Y., thinking the person was a deer. He also told of an incident reported last month in New Hampshire, where a man mistakenly shot a person riding a mountain bike.
Selen, Kelly and Swartz agreed with residents that there was no urgent need for such an amendment at this time. Sullivan defended Ritter's motives saying that "He has a genuine concern for children and everyone's safety." Sullivan added that he looked at the amendment as an "addition to an existing ordinance," noting that if in the future bears became a problem, the ordinance would already be on the books.
One Chatham Township resident in attendance, David Kotch, came to the microphone to say that he was in favor of the hunt.
Ritter contended that there were people not at the meeting who were in favor of the measure, but were afraid to say so in public because of fear they would be attacked via social media.
Stacey Gregg of Rockaway came to Chatham on Thursday to stand up for the bears
Ritter made the point that people who supported the amendment would not say so in public because of the vitriol he has received on social media platforms