Even though Matthew Byatt was born on the other side of the world, guns have always been a big part of his life.
The Sydney, Australia native first started shooting in the outback when he was 10 years old.
“We had .22s and a .243 bolt gun,” he said. “We had semi-autos — an SKS — but that was long before the ban.”
Around 2000, Byatt immigrated to Florida after sailing around the world, literally.
Two years ago, he opened Predator Ordnance — a full-service gun shop in Orange Park, which specializes in Black Guns, suppressors and Title II/Class III weaponry.
Last year, Byatt bought a weekend “getaway” property — 21 acres on Ten Rod Road near Middleburg, Florida.
The property has creek access, flat creek beds, a gentle sloping hill and plenty of thick woods — a perfect spot for him, his wife and their two children.
“We camp out there with the kids. We canoe and fish in the creek,” he said. “It’s just really a great property to hang out at on weekends.”
Byatt built his own “personal” shooting range on the property, which consists of a U-shaped berm that’s 15-feet tall, 20-feet deep and 80 yards long.
He named the property “Black Creek Sporting Club” and incorporated it through an LLC.
“It’s just a shell company I created for asset protection and to limit liability,” Byatt explained. “I was thinking about someday renting it out to groups, or offering camping and canoeing.”
He would regret this decision later.
“All it’s doing is giving them a window to attack me,” he said.
Byatt shot — a lot — with friends at his range.
In that part of Clay County, people shoot, especially on the weekends.
“On Saturdays, it sounds like World War III out here,” he said. “Everyone’s into guns out here.”
Byatt hosted a machine gun shoot for friends and customers of his gun shop. Shooters paid a flat fee of $40, which gave them access to the guns, and then bought ammunition separately.
He held the event at his range. No one paid any range fees.
“This is a private range — a 100 percent private range,” he said. “It’s not open to the public. It’s just for me and my friends.”
Regulators want to regulate
Problems for Byatt first began when he and some friends were shooting machine guns at the range.
“One of my neighbors came screaming up to us, yelling about our shooting,” Byatt said. “He was crazy out-of-control. I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”
The neighbor is identified in official documents as Richard Vickery.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Vickery is a convicted felon. He’s been arrested for grand larceny, strong-arm robbery, battery and use of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
Vickery did not respond to numerous calls seeking comment for this story.
After Byatt and friends kept shooting, Vickery started lodging complaints about Byatt’s range.
The Clay County Sheriff’s Department sent deputies several times to Byatt’s property, but the lawmen took no official action.
“The deputies told us they wished they could shoot with us,” Byatt said. “They said we were completely legal and that we had a good berm, which was better than their berm. They were really nice. They said they were sorry to bug us, and that they knew we were doing everything by the law and safe.”
Not satisfied, Vickery made more phone calls. This time his complaints were environmental in nature.
Eventually, the complaints made it to Chad A. Williams, the zoning chief of Clay County’s Division of Planning and Zoning.
On March 14, Williams sent an email to other county officials as well as Erick Revuelta, the compliance coordinator for the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Division of Regulatory Service.
Revuelta did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment for this story. His email was obtained through a public records request.
“We have several complaints on this property,” Williams wrote in the email. “At first it appeared that an individual was shooting guns on their property which is not a violation. We have since found out they are operating a shooting club which makes it a commercial venture in my world. He (Byatt) has no zoning permits and may be subject to a code enforcement violation.”
Williams was not willing to be interviewed, but instead sent an email statement: “This case was just recently brought to me to determine if there is a zoning violation. It is my understanding that the owner of the property on Ten Rod Road is operating as a commercial venture. If that is the case, there would be a zoning violation because commercial gun ranges are not permissible within the current zoning district of the property. If the operation is not commercial, then it would be the owners private use of their property. I have just made contact with the owner in hopes to ascertain what is exactly taking place on the property. The owner has provided me with some helpful information so we can determine whether the operation is for commercial or private use. I will let you know the outcome as soon as possible.”
That same day Williams sent his email, Colleen Bierbach, an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Submerged Lands and Environmental Resources Program, sent an email to Revuelta and other state regulators.
Bierbach said her office too has received complaints about Byatt’s range from Vickery and Troy Starling, an investigator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Starling did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.
Starling, Bierbach wrote, said Byatt’s berm was constructed in the “wetlands.”
“It and the newly constructed boat ramp are causing sand to wash and be deposited into Black Creek and will cause flooding on neighboring properties,” Bierbach wrote. “Troy Starling estimated 2 acres of Black Creek have been dredged and the total amount of damage to wetlands is four acres. Complainants stated both parcels are being used for the gun range, and Mr. Byatt is charging admission for use and hosting shooting events.”
Unlike other officials, Bierbach called me back. Also on the line was Russell Simpson, ombudsman for DEP’s northeast district.
“We have totally handed that over to St. Johns River Water Management District,” Simpson said. “I really have no other comment other than that we have gotten the initial complaint.”
I asked both regulators how they determined that Byatt’s range was open to the public.
“We got that info on the complaint that we received,” Bierbach said. “That is what we were told by multiple complainants that called into our office.”
I asked if Vickery was one of the complainants, and if they knew he was a convicted felon.
“Sir, I just took the name and phone …” Bierbach began, before Simpson cut her off.
“I think we probably want to minimize any more conversation,” Simpson interjected. “We received a complaint, sent it through our process and determined it should be sent to St. Johns.”
Simpson referred further inquiries to Teresa Monson, spokeswoman for the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Monson wrote in an email she was only willing to be interviewed by email, which is something I, and most journalists, will never do.
“That’s an interesting interpretation,” Monson said in an email. “Our response to your question is that there is currently no enforcement action.”
On April 18, Revuelta sent Byatt a complaint letter.
Byatt has yet to schedule the on-site visit that Revuelta wants.
On May 17, Clay County Code Enforcement Officer Gerry Smith sent Byatt a “cease and desist” letter.
“You must cease all non-permitted activities and business operations from your residential property,” the letter states.”
Williams, Smith’s boss, did not respond to a question about why his office would take enforcement action without knowing all of the facts.
Marion Hammer is the executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, a past president of the National Rifle Association and a current NRA board member.
Last year, Hammer pushed Gov. Rick Scott to abolish another water district, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), for its ongoing litigation against a public shooting facility, the Pinellas Park Club.
In a written statement, Hammer said it was the “duty and obligation of the Attorney General to investigate this state agency for criminal conduct and to prosecute those responsible for unlawful actions.”
“Additionally, to assure immediate action in an expeditious manner, I’m calling upon Governor Rick Scott to task the office of Chief Inspector General to investigate SWFWMD for these blatant and wanton Civil Rights/Second Amendment rights violations,” she wrote. “SWFWMD is a malignant state agency that uses unlimited tax dollars in what I can only called an evil attempt to steal private property and destroy a small private business.”
Florida’s powerful preemption statute mandates that only the legislature can regulate firearms. If a public official violates preemption, they’re subject to a $5,000 fine, which the statute requires them to pay personally. If the violator is an elected official, they can be fined and removed from office.
I contacted Marion Hammer Wednesday and told her about Byatt’s plight.
“It seems to me that under the preemption statute, it says zoning ordinances for the purpose of prohibiting the exercise of the Second Amendment are prohibited,” Hammer said. “The legislature passed laws to specifically stop local government from attempting to impose gun control through zoning and code enforcement. The courts have already ruled that the use of a range and the ability to practice is essential to the exercise of the Second Amendment.”