2018-09-07 / Front Page

Balloon ban put on fast track

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The idea of banning balloons in Kennebunk, first floated toward a June 2019 town vote, is inflating a bit faster. Although an ordinance remains unlikely to make the November ballot, it could now appear before voters as early as this winter.

The author and sponsor of the proposal, high school senior Willy Jones, has been workshopping a draft of the ban language for more than a year before the board of selectmen’s three-member ordinance subcommittee, meeting most recently Aug. 9.

At that session, it was agreed there was little hope of getting the ordinance cobbled together in time for November, and Jones left with the intent of modifying language on the sale and indoor use of balloons. Already, Jones had massaged what was initially meant to be a full-on ban on the sale and use of all balloons, making it apply only to those filled with a lighter-than-air gas.

A stout environmentalist, Jones says balloons — whether released on purpose or let loose accidentally — can eventually cause harm to wildlife. Of particular concern, he said, are whales, which can scoop up the latex refuse while skimming the ocean’s surface for food, causing the material to play havoc with their digestive systems.

Jones was back on Aug. 31, this time appearing before a special session of the full selectboard. Although Jones had left the earlier subcommittee meeting saying he valued its input — given in the interest of giving his proposal its best chance of a positive public vote — Jones said he’d since ruled against making the suggested edits.

“I am currently at a crossroads with this issue,” Jones said. “I ended up on a path where I had been asked to compromise on concepts within this ban that are important to me, and I have reluctantly given in, but regret considering those compromises.

“To me, it feels like the foundation of my mission is being convoluted,” Jones said. “I feel if we still use and sell balloons, we are not getting them out of the ocean, which was, and still is my essential goal. I would like to go back to where I started.

“When I began this process, I felt I was working in the best interests of Kennebunk in terms of the people, children and animals a balloon ban would protect. When people visit Kennebunk I thought they would hear of our ban, even even if they saw balloons from other towns washed up on our beaches, they would know we didn’t like it and want to protect our beaches from trash. Our beaches, to me, are our most important treasure, which we share with very many people. If we don’t respect our own beaches, other people won’t.”

According to Jones, only Hannaford and Mail- It Unlimited sell balloons in Kennebunk. Jones said a ban on balloons would have an infinitesimal impact on the grocery chain’s bottom line, while Mail-It Unlimited, touted in 2017 as the third largest UPS shipper in the country, should be able to weather the loss to its product line.

Spinners, pinwheels and ribbons are all better festive alternatives to balloons, Jones said, and many have been adopted by local business and even the town itself, which has already shunned balloons from its annual May Day Festival.

Jones read letters from officials of Block Island, Rhode Island, home of the balloon ban he took as the model for his proposal.

Those letters touted the positive impact of Block Island’s balloon ban on tourism, and Jones postulated that if it did not act now, Kennebunk would lose any potential media attention — which might spotlight the town to conservation minded visitors — as he expects balloon bans to soon become as common in Maine as the recent wave of bans on styrofoam containers and plastic grocery bags.

More importantly, Jones said, Block Island, like Kennebunk, also has a ban on the sale and use of so-called Chinese sky lanterns.

“That sets a precedent for Kennebunk to ban the sale and use of balloons,” Jones said. “We regulate many things including fireworks for public safety and to prevent nusinances. Children can be hurt as easily from choking on a balloon as using fireworks. And yet, As you can see from their letters, Block Island is not going into people’s homes with balloon police and arresting children using balloons at a birthday party.

“We have the creativity and imagination to showcase our town with dignity without the environmental nightmare of tacky balloon trash,” Jones said.

Christopher Cluff, chairman of the ordinance submitting, said the special meeting of the full board was “circumnavigating the process a little bit,” as it amounted to the full board intersecting itself before the committee made its final recommendation.

“I do support the ordinance, I just want to make sure we get it right,” he said, declaring Jone’s current draft “not ready for prime time.”

But board chairman Dick Morin said he felt the special meeting, however unusual, was warranted.

“I respect the subcommittee process, but, frankly, after numerous news articles and the growing controversy, I thought it would benefit the board to hear (more), especially from our town attorney, who can provide the guidance that ultimately is going to make the decision.”

Cluff, however, said he felt “adjustments still need to be made” to Jones’ proposal, both from a legal viewpoint, as well as in the interest of making the draft as palatable as possible to the average voter.

“I think we were making progress, and then we kind of got the rug pulled out from under us,” he said.

Town Attorney Natalie Burns said Jones’ draft lacks adequate enforcement and penalty provisions required under Maine law. Burns also said the ordinance, as written, would technically apply to anyone who releases a balloon.

“I’m not sure that a court is going to be very excited about a violation notice that’s given to a 6-year-old child who lets go of a balloon, and I continue to be concerned about that,” she said.

Burns also said that ordinance creates potential issues because it outlaws possession as well as the sale of balloons in Kennebunk.

“In effect, you’re not just saying you can’t sell them here, you’re saying you can’t buy it in another town and bring it here,” Burns said.

While most on the board lauded Jones for his initiative, saying he has done an “outstanding job” in making his case, most also shied away from endorsing a full ban on balloon sales in town.

“I think that banning mass release (and) banning other forms of use is appropriate, but banning the sale is a very slippery slope,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said. “After all, there are many things that are more dangerous than balloons. A balloon is an inanimate object. It’s not the balloon itself that kills, it’s the improper use or disposal of the balloon that kills.

“If we are going to start banning things, then we ought to start thinking about sugary drinks, because that’s going to kill 180,000 people in this country this year,” Baldwin said. “We should talk about banning cigarettes, because 410,000 people are going to die from that, including 41,000 people who don’t even use the product. They’re going to die from secondhand smoke.

“So, I think banning products from sale in this town is a bad policy decision on our part. I really don’t think we should start down that path,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin, owner of Video Creations, said he’d be willing to create a public service announcement video to help Jones in his education campaign against balloon use.

Given how hard it is to enforce things like the town’s noise ordinance, Baldwin said it would be better in the long run to convince folks to voluntarily discontinue use of balloons in their celebrations, rather than have a ban foisted upon them.

“I worry that we are going to pass an ordinance that makes us feel good, like we’re doing something to help, and then we are going to run into the parade of horribles in trying to enforce this,” he said.

Jones said he was determined to go forward.

“I have put a good amount of work into this issue ever since I was a young kid,” Jones said, referring to the whale watch cruise he went on at age 7, which kickstarted his conservation conscience, and the years of beach cleanups and classes on balloon dangers he has led ever since, leading up to his current ordinance effort.

“This has always been something I have looked toward doing and I don’t feel like I want to back down on the sale of balloons, especially when there are so many other alternatives,” Jones said.

Despite Jones’ move toward favoring a full ban, including four meetings before the ordinance committee over the past year and sessions with the town’s energy efficiency and May Day Festival committees, Mail-It Unlimited owner Bill Gallant said he was unaware of any drive to outlaw one of his products until this past month.

“This affects my business. So, I take it a little bit on the cheek,” Gallant said. “I would be in full and total support of a ban on mass release, but I have a real problem with the ban on individual products for sale. I have a problem being told I may have up to six months to change my business.

“My wife and I never go to the beaches of Maine without a trash bag. It’s a matter of social responsibility,” Gallant said. “But it doesn’t, to me, ring well that we start telling (people) that you can’t use this thing anymore because there’s a potential for something bad happening. Let’s face it, folks, there isn’t a thing man has made that something can’t go wrong with.”

According to Town Clark Merton Brown, Sept. 11 will be the last opportunity selectmen will have to approve an item for the November ballot.

According to Town Clark Merton Brown, Sept. 11 will be the last opportunity selectmen will have to approve an item for the November ballot.

Selectmen then agreed to have the ordinance subcommittee meet with Jones once more on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

Despite his vow take his draft to vote as is, Jones submitted a new version at the Tuesday morning meeting. That version removed references to lighter-than-air gasses, making it apply to all balloons. However, it also allowed sale of balloons with a permit that would compel retailers to education customers on the dangers of balloons.

After the meeting, Cluff said via telephone the permit requirement was edited out. Instead, retailers will be required to give educational materials, provided by the town, with each balloon sale. Outdoor and public use would still be banned, with balloons limited to private, indoor use only.

Cluff said that given the need for legal review, it “does not seem likely” that the newest draft will be ready for review at the Sept. 11 selectmen’s meeting.

“I don’t think we’re going to make the November ballot, but it looks like there’s a potential for a special town meeting in January or February,” Cluff said.

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

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