2017-03-03 / Front Page

Board proposes fireworks ordinance update

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Light ‘em if ya got ‘em, the free-wheeling era of fireworks use is about to come to an end in Kennebunk.

At least, it will if voters agree to a new fireworks ordinance proposed by the board of selectmen.

At their Feb. 28 meeting, selectmen were slated to approve a draft version of the ban and send it to a public hearing on March 14. Once residents have their say, selectmen are expected to put the proposal on the warrant for the annual town meeting in June.

Tuesday’s meeting took place after the print deadline for this week’s Post. However, passage was expected given the 6-1 vote for the first reading of the ordinance at the board’s Feb. 14 session.

“It’s really very short and sweet,” Town Manager Michael Pardue said when introducing the one-page document.

As written, the ordinance would limit the use of fireworks to two days per year, July 4 and Dec. 31, from 9 a.m. until 12:30 a.m. the following day. But residents would be able to shoot off consumer fireworks on those two days only after obtaining a permit from the fire department “on the day proposed for discharge.”

In a Feb. 27 email, Pardue said the central fire station will be staffed and ready to issue permits even if the holiday should fall on a weekend. The exception would if the day measures a Class 4 or 5 on the five-point National Fire Danger Rating System used by the Maine Forest Service, in which case no permits would be issued that year.

Although the ordinance does allow selectmen to set a fee for the permits, Pardue said at the Feb. 14 board meeting that they would be issued at no charge.

“It’s really only for us to have a list of who has come in to request the ability to discharge consumer fireworks,” he said.

If approved by voters, police officers would adopt an “educational process” for the first year, Pardue said, carrying permits with them when responding to complaints of fireworks noise, and issuing them on the spot should the identified user not have his or her permission slip on hand.

That issuance would come after advising the user of the limits contained in the ordinance, he said.

Selectmen will set a fine, to be determined, for using fireworks outside of the prescribed days, or, after the first year, without a permit. Additionally, while possession of consumer fireworks is legal under state law, residents could lose any on hand if police determine the owner intended to fire them off without a permit.

“The town may seize consumer fireworks that the town has probable cause to believe are used in violation of this ordinance and shall forfeit seized fireworks to the state for disposal,” the draft language reads, adding that “the violating party” will be assessed any disposal fees charged by the state.

In 2011, the Maine State Legislature decriminalized use of consumer fireworks — defined as any number of small combustible devices not including “missile” products, such as bottle rockets, skyrockets and aerial spinners. The former crime was struck from the books effective Jan. 1, 2012. However, the new law allowed towns to adopt local restriction on the use of fireworks, up to and including outright bans.

Kennebunkport adopted a full ban on the sale and use of consumer fireworks in June 2012, excepting only specially permitted public displays.

Arundel and Kennebunk let the new rules ride. According to Kennebunk Fire Chief Jeffrey Rowe, there have been no reported injuries linked to fireworks use since the products became legal for use.

However, selectmen say they receive an earful each year, particularly after major holidays, with dog owners being the most frequent objectors to the explosive revelry. In the wake of complaints following the 2016 Independence Day celebration, selectmen asked then-town manager Barry Tibbetts to craft a solution.

The one submitted by Pardue met the approval of all on the board except Deborah Beal.

“I just can’t say how vehemently I oppose this,” she said at the board’s Feb. 14 meeting.

“We are taking all of our rights and we are throwing the baby out with the bath water,” she said. “We haven’t looked at enforcing what we have currently. We haven’t looked at putting signs up. We’ve completely taken everything away. To me this just goes way over the deep end.”

Beal said she’s heard no widespread call to outlaw fireworks, but Selectman Shiloh Schulte offered a different experience.

“I personally have had quite a number of people complain to me,” he said.

Schulte also reminded Beal of the number of residents who have appeared before the board to grouse about fireworks noise. Town Clerk Merton Brown also has appeared at the podium at least once to report on irate commentary lodged at his desk.

“The idea that people are not affected by this is not accurate,” Schulte said.

Selectman Blake Baldwin said he began to field complaints about fireworks almost as soon as he was elected, this past June. As a result, Baldwin said, he began to informally poll “everyone I ever came in contact with,” on the topic. The result of the polling, he said, seemed to tip the scales more toward Beal’s view of public outcry.

“I was surprised that the responses were all across the board,” he said. “Some people could have cared less. There was a broad range of people weighing in, but I was really surprised, frankly, that there were not more people who were upset by fireworks.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then this will be voted down,” Schulte said.

Still, board chairman Richard Morin allowed that complaints about fireworks noise in Kennebunk has not been inconsequential.

“On email and on social media there has been a pretty strong response, saying, ‘This is ridiculous, you’re torturing my animals, and you’re torturing me,’” he said.

Still, Beal persisted, poking holes in the proposal.

“To me this is unenforceable. If we haven’t done it before, what makes us think we are going to be able to do it now,” she said, noting that police rarely seem able to arrive on scene in time to catch violators of the town’s noise ordinance, which limits sound in residential areas after dusk to 45 decibels at property lot lines. Beal also questioned whether the fire department has staff enough to meet the potential demand for permits, conjuring up the image of long lines at the firehouse door.

“I can see hundreds of people wanting permits,” she said.

Beal also deemed the proposal too limiting. Should the two allowed days for fireworks use fall on a Monday, people are naturally going to want to celebrate on the weekend, putting the town in the position of practically inviting violations, she said.

“And if my daughter is getting married in our back yard and we want to have a small fireworks display to celebrate, now she has to get married on July 4 or December 31?” she asked.

“If you want to have a celebration that’s great, but this is not something that just affects you and the people on your property,” Schulte said. “It’s a safety issue. It’s a noise issue. It’s very frustrating and annoying for very many people in town.”

Ultimately, Morin said, it will be up to the voters to determine if the proposed ordinance encroaches too far on personal liberty.

“If it goes to ballot there will be a definitive answer,” he said.

“But I think we need to work out the bugs before we send it,” Beal replied, casting the lone vote against the first reading of the proposal.

However, Beal did gain one concession, as the six remaining selectmen asked Pardue to “develop a proposal for a special event permit” that would allow for limited use of consumer fireworks beyond the two days named on the draft ordinance.

The version of the ordinance that came back for second reading Feb. 28 had an example of the permit residents would have to obtain, but contained no mention of any allowable use other than July 4 and Dec. 31.

“This possible allowance continues to be under research,” Pardue said in a Feb. 27 email, in response to a question about lack of the requested special event exception.

“It is possible such an alternative will be available in time for the Feb. 28 board of selectmen meeting but if not, this matter will likely move to the board’s March 14 meeting,” Pardue wrote.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

Return to top