2018-08-17 / Front Page

Balloon ban in the air for Kennebunk

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — An ordinance designed to ban the use of helium-filled balloons in Kennebunk is floating its way through town hall, on the first leg of its journey to voters.

The author of the ban, Kennebunk High School senior Willy Jones, met with the three members of the selectboard’s ordinance subcommittee on Thursday, Aug. 9.

It was the third such meeting in the past year. At that session committee members decided the proposal will not be ready for the ballot in time for November, but said it should be ready for a public vetting in time for the annual town meeting, in June, 2019.

Jones, an ardent environmentalist enamored of whales from age 7, dedicates hundreds of hours per year to leading beach cleanups and educating others on respect for sea life. Balloons, he says, can be eaten by whales as they skim the water’s surface for food and end up destroying their digestive systems.

The same is true of turtles, which can easily mistake a latex balloon for a jellyfish, he says.

Despite the years he’s spent trying to convince others to refrain from releasing balloons into the environment — even convincing event organizers to strike balloons from May Day decorations in favor of ribbons and streamers — Jones says he felt himself fighting a rising tide of trash. That, he says, has precipitated the need to take the next step, actually outlawing most balloons from sale and outdoor use in town.

But not everyone is enamored of the young man’s initiative. In an Aug. 8 letter to selectmen, Bill Gallant, owner of Shoppers Village store Mail-It Unlimited, called Jones’ proposal “absurd at best.”

Gallant, who said he has sold helium balloons for nearly 30 years, noted that he would be in favor of banning the mass release of balloons in town. However, he questioned how any town-wide ban on stores and individuals could ever be enforced.

“Once the balloons have been released, how would the enforcement official be able to prove the balloons were released by a specific individual?” Gallant asked, raising the spectre of what he termed, the “balloon police.”

Worse, Gallant said, those who buy balloons rarely purchase that one item alone. Banning balloons from sale in Kannebunk will have a negative multiplier effect on sales, he said, as people seek their party goods across the border.

“Any of our citizens who want balloons will simply purchase them in nearby towns and enjoy them in Kennebunk,” Gallant wrote. “The net impact is to penalize businesses like mine.”

Jones’ proposal has actually been dialed back from his first draft. Modeled on similar bans in Block Island, Rhode Island, and on Nantucket Island, in Massachusetts, the initial version envisioned a full ban on all sale and use of all types of balloons. However, the committee has at each meeting urged Jones to rein in restrictions, in order to make the final version more politically palatable.

“They’ve been great,” Jones said of the committee, immediately following the most recent session. “They’ve been very helpful with the legality of my ideas and in helping to make it more appealing to the greatest number of voters.”

Jones said he initially considered circulating a citizens’ petition, which would have allowed him to force the measure onto a referendum warrant over any objection from selectmen. However, Town Clerk Merton Brown suggested he try working with the ordinance committee instead. That process has taken far longer than Jones had hoped, but he’s happy with the result thus far.

“Honestly, I would like to have got it done faster, but I also want to do it right,” he said. “I want to do it in a way that people are going to be happy with it and vote for it. I could have gone with a petition, and it might have even been passed by now. But it might have passed with only 60 percent of the population happy with it, and 40 percent not happy with it. I want everybody to be happy with it.”

Among the edits Jones has made along the way, the proposed ordinance now only applies to the sale and outdoor use of balloons filled with any lighter-than-air gas.

Still, the committee has concerns. In an Aug. 8 email, town attorney Natalie Burns said provisions designed to protect the environment do fall within Kennebunk’s policing power. However, the sale and use of balloons, “by themselves,” she said, “do not appear to cause the environmental impacts” Jones is seeking to cure.

Burns said the ban on sales could be seen to violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, while other parts of the ordinance might make criminals of children and tourists.

“It is not clear whether the actual possession of a defined balloon would constitute a violation,” Burns wrote. “This is an important issue as [it] ... could mean issuing violation notices to people who are traveling through town.”

At last week’s ordinance meeting, committee chairman Christopher Cluff urged Jones to edit out the ban on balloon sales.

“I’m very concerned about the selling piece in general,” he said. “I just don’t think we should be regulating as a town what our businesses can and can not sell. I mean, I know we do it in a lot of ways with alcohol and so forth, but I just don’t think this is a battle we should be fighting.”

Committee member Wayne Berry agreed, but the third member, Shiloh Schulte, felt the restriction should remain.

“Prohibiting the sale of the balloons in not particularly problematic. It’s not like were the first community to do it,” he said. “And we’ve banned plastic bags. I don’t know why this is different from anything else we’ve done.”

However, all three selectmen questioned how the ban would be enforced, although Cluff did admit, “almost all of our ordinanes are unenforceable.”

In its current form, the ordinance would exempt the town and scientific exemptions from the ban on balloon releases.

Gallant questioned that in his letter, but Cluff said in answer — even though Gallant was not present for the meeting — ”I think you’ll find in almost all of our ordinances there’s a municipal exemption.”

Asked by Berry what he was trying to get at, and if a ban on mass release of balloons would be sufficient, Jones said his education efforts have been fairly effective in stemming the tide of mass releases. But the problem persists.

“I’m pretty much concerned with every single release,” he said.

But Berry did not contest Jones’ assertion that balloons, released singly or en masse, are a problem.

“We see them all over,” he agreed. “They’re stuck in trees. They’re on the edge of marshes. I agree, they’re everywhere. I just want to make sure what you’re getting at.”

Berry questioned whether Jones would allow an exception for biodegradable balloons, Jones said such things “don’t exist.” Even balloons touted as biodegradable do not break down “in under five or six years, at least, which is too long in the environment,” Jones said, adding, “Too long for me, at least.”

Berry also wondered aloud whether a balloon release, particularly when the balloon carries a printed message, qualifies as a form of expression protected by the First Amendment provision guaranteeing freedom of speech.

Berry then suggested Jones’ idea really ought to be taken to the top floor.

“This is something that really should be handled on the state or federal level, and not locally,” he said. “Then you get into the guy selling balloons in Arundel 50 feet from the Kennebunk town line.”

Still, the committee did not try to squash Jones’ proposal.

“I think the idea has merit. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to work it,” Cluff said. “It still seems like we have a lot of holes to fill, even on the intent of this.”

Kathy Nolette, administrative assistant to Town Manager Mike Pardue, said any ordinance proposal has to get a final warrant vote from selectmen no later than Sept. 11 to make the November general election ballot. In order to allow time for mandated public hearings, that would have meant a first reading before selectmen at their Aug. 14 meeting, she said.

“This is not going to be ready for next Tuesday, which means it’s not going to happen in November,” Berry said.

Jones said he will take the committee’s advice to heart and once again revise his proposal, with an eye toward making the annual town meeting warrant in June. A date for the September ordinance committee meeting had not been set by the time this week’s Post went to press.

Jones does not necessarily have to carve the ban on sales from his draft. According to Cluff, the ordinance committee in the case of a resident proposal functions largely in an advisory role. It will forward whatever language Jones settles on to the full board with a yes-or-no recommendation that it be sent to voters.

If the full board declines to put the proposed ordinance before voters, Jones can still return to his original idea and circulate a petition. According to Brown, Jones would need 421 signatures from registered Kennebunk voters to force his proposal onto the ballot over any objection from selectmen.

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

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