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Trial by fireworks: Legality, penalties vary throughout greater Portland, despite Maine law

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Trial by fireworks: Legality, penalties vary throughout greater Portland, despite Maine law

PORTLAND — When Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill on July 1 legalizing the sale and use of consumer fireworks, towns around the state had six months to decide whether to enact their own restrictions.

For some elected officials, it was easy: maintain the status quo, which outlawed consumer fireworks and stores that sell them.

But other towns spent considerable time debating and making changes: some enacted outright bans, some selected partial bans, and still others voted to let the new state law take effect and see what happens.

Of the 14 communities covered by The Forecaster, eight have banned the sale and use of fireworks and one has enacted a partial ban. In five towns and one city, fireworks will be legal as of Jan. 1, 2012.

But the debate may not end when the new year arrives on Sunday.

Restrictions

Concerns over safety and increased risk of fires dominated the discussion in towns that ultimately banned fireworks.

In Yarmouth, Fire Chief Byron Fairbanks told the Town Council he was most concerned about injuries to children – a concern echoed by residents in nearly every town that considered a ban.

"My concern is that (fireworks) will get in the hands of the wrong people, and children will get a hold of these things, and harm is going to be done," Fairbanks said in a Nov. 17 council meeting.

High population density exacerbated safety concerns in Portland and South Portland, where city councils banned sale and use and, in Portland's case, possession of fireworks.

At a little less than 12 square miles, South Portland has a population density of about 2,100 people per square mile. That was too high for Councilor Tom Blake, a former firefighter who voted for the ban.

"When I go to camp, where everyone has a 40-acre lot, it's a different story," Blake said on Oct. 3. "There's a time and a place for everything."

Portland officials also worried that noise complaints about firecrackers around July 4 would increase if they were legalized, and heard from residents who said they frequently hear fireworks in their neighborhoods now, even though they are illegal.

Other elected officials suggested that not banning fireworks would make their towns magnets for fireworks users.

"I would not want to be the only town allowing fireworks when other towns around us do not," Falmouth Town Councilor Bonny Rodden said Nov. 14.

Only Cumberland chose to pass a partial ban on fireworks. Town councilors voted 4-3 to allow use of fireworks five days a year, around Independence Day and New Year's Eve. Sale of fireworks is illegal.

Councilors weighed personal responsibility and safety.

Councilor George Turner called the matter "a freedom issue," noting that "for us to sit here and micromanage what our fellow citizens can do, that generally speaking is relatively safe ... it's a no-brainer to at least allow the celebration around the Fourth of July."

Legal – for now

Besides Cumberland, five other communities will allow fireworks to be used as of Jan. 1: Scarborough, Harpswell, Topsham, Bath and Chebeague Island – although Bath is expected to ban use and sale at a Jan. 4 City Council meeting.

Bath city councilors have already voted once in favor of banning the sale and use of fireworks, but they must vote a second time. If the ban passes, fireworks would become illegal in the city on Jan. 25.

Until then, sale and use will be allowed in Bath in accordance with the new state law.

Topsham residents will have a chance to vote at their annual Town Meeting in May 2012.

A poll on the town's website revealed that residents were nearly equally divided for and against allowing fireworks in town. Respondents voted 105-104 against banning the sale, and 95-91 in favor of banning the use of fireworks.

Until the vote, fireworks are legal in Topsham.

Harpswell and Chebeague Island haven't drafted fireworks ordinances, and are allowing state law to take effect.

Scarborough is the only town where elected officials voted to allow the sale, use and possession of fireworks.

Taking a "wait-and-see" approach, town councilors voted not to ban the explosives and are working to amend the town's noise ordinances to accommodate fireworks. Two national fireworks retailers, Alabama-based TNT Fireworks and Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, have already contacted town officials and expressed interest in opening stores in Scarborough.

Changes ahead?

Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst at the Office of the Maine State Fire Marshal, has been keeping track of local bans and restrictions on use and sale of fireworks.

The regulations vary so much, there's no clear theme, he said, although he has detected a lot of interest in moratoriums, specifically on sale of fireworks. The intent, he said, is to avoid a situation where a fireworks retailer opens up in a town that later decides to ban them.

"You can ban use after that, but I think you're going to have a more difficult time telling the company to leave town," he said.

Taylor said he has also heard about a variety of restrictions on fireworks, including restricting them only on high fire-danger days, and banning the explosives only in densely populated neighborhoods, but allowing their use in rural areas.

Municipalities around Maine are also realizing how difficult and labor-intensive fireworks enforcement will be.

"In retrospect, a lot of (police departments) wished they were a lot more active when the bill was going through," Taylor said. "... I think they're having second thoughts."

Because the sale of consumer fireworks has been illegal in Maine for a long time – the earliest reference to restricting the explosives comes in an 1806 law – Taylor said the fire marshal's office was also learning about consumer fireworks and how to license them while the bill was being passed.

"I think everyone, law enforcement community, fire community, us, wish we had some time to go back," he said, and learn more about consumer fireworks before introducing a bill to legalize them.

As a result, Taylor said the law is likely to be revised in the future.

"We just didn't know enough about it, I don't think," he said. "We're all learning."

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.