Portland poised to thwart Maine's legalization of consumer fireworks

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PORTLAND — The city is poised to be one of the first communities in Maine to enact a prohibition on the purchase and use of fireworks.

The move is in response to the Legislature’s legalization of the sale and use of consumer fireworks.

After only five minutes of discussion Tuesday evening, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted 2-0, with Councilor John Coyne absent, to direct city staff to draft a fireworks ban for the full council’s consideration.

Portland Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne spoke in favor of the ban, citing the city’s population density and old housing stock. 

“We really have grave concerns around (fireworks’) ability not only to impact our housing stock and start fires, but also our concern around personal injury,” LaMontagne said.

Portland is no stranger to fireworks mishaps.

The Great Fire of Portland in 1866 was caused by an errant fire cracker on Fourth of July, the first after the end of the Civil War.

The fire, which burned a third of the Old Port, from Commercial and Maple streets to North Street, killed two people, displaced 12,000 and caused $12 million in damage, according to the Maine Historical Society. 

Even professional pyrotechnicians in recent years have had their problems.

Last year, a fireworks shell exploded close to a fireworks storage trailer on the Eastern Promenade, starting a small fire that resulted in an unscheduled encore of fireworks bursting into the sky after the official show was over.

City officials fear fires and injuries will be more common after the state’s new law takes effect Jan. 1, 2012.

The state law would allow the sale and use of fireworks by people over the age of 21. Ground-based fireworks containing 50 mg or less of explosive materials, and aerial fireworks containing 130 mg or less would be legal. “Missile-type rockets,” helicopters, aerial spinners, and sky and bottle rockets would not be allowed.  

Use of fireworks will be allowed between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., and until 12:30 a.m. on July 4, Dec. 31 and weekends before and after those dates.

But the state law also allows municipalities to enact their own bans.

City officials are also concerned that general nuisance complaints about neighborhood fire crackers around the Fourth of July will become everyday occurrences. 

Chester Street resident Helen Andrews spoke in support of the ban. She claimed someone was either lighting fire crackers or having target practice this week in East Deering.

“We hear it all the time on Veranda Street,” she said.

Councilor David Marshall, who proposed the ban, said he has heard complaints from Parkside residents who must contend with fireworks before and after the Fourth of July – with the statewide prohibition in place.

“You certainly have issues around public safety, but also trying to maintain the peace,” Marshall said.

Mary Costigan, a city attorney, said a draft of the ban will be presented to the full council in September.

In other business, Costigan was also directed to assemble information about backyard chickens, including the number of permit holders and any documented complaints.

Marshall hopes to reduce the current 25-foot property line setback to allow residents in the West End and other dense neighborhoods to keep domestic chickens.

Homeless shelters

Police Department Cmdr. Vern Malloch told the committee police are making inroads in improving communication with management at the Preble Street Resource Center and Florence House. 

Malloch said Preble Street is sharing more information about police suspects and public safety threats.

But Malloch said there is still room to improve public safety around Preble Street, saying there continue to be fights and illicit activity near the center.

“We are seeing some fruits,” he said. “And we hope to see more.”

Although Malloch said police only responded to seven calls at Florence House, a supportive living complex for chronically homeless women on Valley Street, resident Gordon Andrews said problems continue.

Andrews said an increase in homelessness and a resulting general social disruption – property damage, drug use, public urination and defecation, and threatening behavior – has made it nearly impossible to sell a four-unit apartment complex in the area. 

“I feel we cannot really neglect this issue much longer,” he said.

Malloch said police meet with the management of the Florence House once a month.

At Councilor Edward Suslovic’s request, Malloch said those meetings could be expanded to include neighborhood residents.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.