Dazzling Array: Dealing With Fireworks
(from Maine Townsman, February 2012)
by Douglas Rooks
As of Jan.1, consumer fireworks have been legal to possess in all parts of Maine. As of March 1, Mainers should also be able to buy fireworks in-state.
As for use, well, it depends on where you are when you use them.
When the Legislature voted last year to legalize more types of fireworks, it allowed towns and cities to regulate or prohibit their sale and use. Those provisions of the law have led to a flurry of local ordinances, and there undoubtedly will be more as communities gauge how fireworks are actually used – and misused, in the view of some.
As of mid-January, at least 25 municipalities comprising more than 300,000 people have banned sales or use – usually both. Another seven, with about 50,000 people, had enacted ordinances that permit and regulate fireworks. Many more are still considering options and smaller towns are viewed as being less likely to create separate ordinances. Where there is no local regulation, state law applies.
Until this year, New Hampshire was the only New England state where most fireworks were legal for consumer use. That puts New England in a minority. Nationally, more than 40 states permit some kind of fireworks, though the particular types involved vary considerably. Sparklers, for instance, are rarely regulated, even though they ignite at high temperatures and can cause serious burns, particularly to children.
Rep. Douglas Damon (R-Bangor), now serving his first term, sponsored the fireworks bill that was enacted on the final day of the session, June 29, and signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage a week later.
Damon said he did so in part because he believes that making fireworks legal can improve safety, since so many people use fireworks regardless of their legal status. He said he earlier approached the State Fire Marshal with a request that the office prepare a public service announcement on safe use of fireworks, only to be told it would be inappropriate, since their use wasn’t legal. Now, he expects the fire marshal will provide more information, including a brochure stores must distribute to all qualified buyers.
CREATING RETAIL JOBS
“It do see it as a jobs bill,” Damon said. “It will increase retail sales and provide tax revenue.” He noted that his own community, Bangor, was one of the first municipalities to ban fireworks.
“That’s OK,” he said. “They’re exercising local control, which is just what should happen.”
The use and sale of fireworks was an area where the Legislature’s new Republican majority made a clear difference last session, as previous attempts to legalize fireworks failed. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee favored the bill 8-5, with one Democrat joining majority Republicans. The bill passed the House, 76-61, and the Senate, 20-12. In the Senate, two Democrats voted yes and two Republicans opposed the bill; in the House there were half a dozen crossover votes.
At the bill’s public hearing, Dan Billings, the governor’s legal counsel and chief adviser, delivered testimony in favor of the bill, a sure sign it had the governor’s support.
Rep. Anna Blodgett (D-Augusta) was on the other side of the committee vote and, after it was clear the measure would be approved, she worked to amend it. One amendment would have created a quarter-mile setback from neighboring residences but that wasn’t adopted. She believes fireworks are dangerous, a conviction dating from her days as the capital city’s parks and recreation director.
“We’d have to wet down the roofs of buildings when they did the Fourth of July show,” she said.
But she doesn’t see much chance of a future legislature repealing the law. “It’s in the local arena now,” she said. “That’s where it will be decided.”
Municipal governments have had long and sometimes contentious hearings and debates about fireworks over the past six months. Often, public safety officials have had a prominent voice, particularly when they objected to local use.
Rockland Fire Chief Charles Jordan strongly opposes consumer fireworks and his argument carried the day with the city council, unanimously. Jordan doesn’t think much of the argument that making fireworks use legal will improve safety.
“Let’s make dangerous stuff legal so we can regulate it?” he said. “I just don’t buy it. I’m just not sure that it’s true.”
Jordan acknowledges that he’s sometimes known around town as “the nanny” because of his advocacy for an ordinance that mandates sprinklers in all new residential construction. “My feeling is that if it improves public safety at a reasonable cost, it’s worth doing,” he said.
Had he been in the Legislature, he would have opposed the bill, Jordan said. “I think they were trying to make it irresistible,” he said. “You know, fireworks (are) as American as mom, apple pie and Chevrolet. It fits right in.”
Jordan’s position is shared by Roger Audette, Augusta’s fire chief, who said, “There’s an inherent risk to fireworks. They can start fires and cause injuries.”
Audette recalls two serious structure fires in the city’s built-up residential areas caused by illegal fireworks in the 1990s. “With all our hills and surrounding woods, you just can’t use these things safely,” he said. The city council banned fireworks by a 5-2 vote.
In Topsham, public safety officials haven’t been as vocal, said Town Manager Cornell Knight. The selectmen had been considering a moratorium, but they paused after reading comments commissioned via an online poll, which found residents evenly divided on both sale and use.
As a result, action was deferred to the May town meeting, where an ordinance will be presented that would permit, but regulate, the sale of fireworks. Under Topsham’s zoning ordinance, the most likely location for a store would be in the mall area.
“Public Safety was mostly concerned that we required annual local inspections,” Knight said. Use by consumers didn’t come up, he said.
Hallowell originally considered a ban, but then found some councilors in favor of at least limited use, said City Manager Mike Starn. The compromise was a 300-foot setback from neighboring residences, which will effectively push use – by permit only – “over the hill,” toward the Maine Turnpike and the more rural parts of town. Sales are prohibited.
At the State Fire Marshal’s office, Richard Taylor is in charge of compiling local ordinances – a list he acknowledged is currently incomplete due to reporting delays – and overseeing regulations for retail stores. Under the law, retailers must occupy detached, free-standing buildings at least 300 feet apart from adjoining structures.
The potential for fire and explosion was what led Winthrop’s town council to ban sales, though the town will permit use.
Maine’s law in some respects resembles New Hampshire’s but it is different in focusing on prohibited items rather than those permitted, Taylor said. “We discovered nearly 2,500 different types of fireworks,” he said. “It made more sense to spell out what we won’t allow.”
So far, the three prohibited categories are: missile-type rockets; helicopters and aerial spinners; and, skyrockets and bottle rockets.
Some local ordinances include non-fireworks items. In Rockland, the council decided to ban use of “lanterns,” small illuminated balloons that include a lighted flame, according to City Attorney Kevin Beal. “Those present an obvious fire hazard, so we included them in the ban,” he said.
Taylor of the State Fire Marshal’s office hasn’t approved any licenses yet, but they are coming, as confirmed by Steve Marson, president of Central Maine Pyrotechnics, based in Hallowell.
Marson’s commercial display business puts on 225 shows a year in four states – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts – and he sees a significant market for direct-to-consumer sales.
Marson expects to open the state’s first fireworks store around March 1 at a former car dealership in Manchester, just over the town line from Augusta. He also set his sights on opening in April in Winslow, where the town council first voted for a moratorium on sales, by a vote of 4-3, then reversed itself.
An intervening election removed a moratorium supporter and installed a councilor who supported fireworks sales, explained Town Manager Mike Heavener. The council now plans to adopt regulations for stores, but it may not apply to Hallowell Pyrotechnics’ pending application. “They may be grandfathered,” Heavener said.
Marson has targeted four other locations for stores: Topsham, Edgecomb, Presque Isle and Brewer. He is considering a store in Lubec that could serve the Calias/Machias area.
“Basically, we’re looking at the top three-fifths of the state, geographically, with 450,000 people,” Marson said. He expects that national companies with stores in New Hampshire will branch out into southern Maine.
Concerning safety, Marson said things are a lot different than many people remember from decades ago. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission began regulating fireworks in 1989 and the American Federal Standards Laboratory has set up shop in China, where 85 percent of fireworks used in the U.S. are manufactured. Most of the rest come from Italy.
“A lot of the stuff people used to fire off – cherry bombs, M-80s – are now illegal under federal law,” he said. “If you see any of those things, you know they’re home-made” – and dangerous.
Marson said fireworks can be used safely by people who are 21 and over, as the law requires, and who are not impaired by drugs or alcohol, another requirement. In any municipality where he sets up shop, “We’ll have demonstrations for the fire department and the public about how to do it safely.”
Some towns and cities came to a quick decision about fireworks; others did not. The apparently split public opinion in Topsham slowed down action, and in Kittery, a move for a moratorium has failed so far, 4-3, with strong opinions on both sides.
Lewiston, so far the largest city not to have banned fireworks, saw its council vote to do so, but a municipal election prevented a second and final vote. Still, it seems likely Lewiston will eventually act, since the original vote was 5-2.
In Gorham, one of the largest southern Maine towns not to ban fireworks, the council is still pondering what to do. Said Town Manager David Cole: “The council was interested in what was going on in other communities around us.”
Gorham largely lacks the dense housing stock that led fire chiefs in Portland, South Portland, Augusta and other cities to recommend bans. The town “is considering regulations,” Cole said. “We might ban them, but not necessarily.”
Neighboring Westbrook had no such hesitation. The council there voted to allow sales by permit, though some councilors suggested they might revisit the issue if Westbrook remains one of the few Cumberland County municipalities to permit sales. “My concern is that we don’t have a firework alley,” Council President Brendan Rielly told the American Journal newspaper.
Steve Marson said that’s not likely. “It’s hard to find this kind of building,” meeting the stand-alone and setback requirements, he said. “Believe me, I’ve looked.”
Based on projected sales, it doesn’t make sense for a dealer to build from scratch “and there aren’t too many developers who want to take this kind of risk,” he said.
Cumberland may have come up with the most unusual ordinance. Fireworks sales are banned in town, and so is use – for 360 days of the year. Cumberland will allow fireworks from July 3-5, on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. For July 4 and New Year’s Eve, legal hours are 9 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. the next morning. On “shoulder” days, use is permitted from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Town Attorney Alyssa Tibbetts said the ordinance, devised after several hearings, represents a compromise for residents who want to use fireworks and those who are annoyed by them. It is also a way of limiting the days the fire and police departments can expect to respond to complaints and misuse.
“They want to see how much impact there really is,” she said. “At this point, we really don’t know.”
Douglas Rooks is a freelance writer from West Gardiner and regular contributor to the Townsman, email@example.com