Scarborough panel to weigh tighter limits on fireworks

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SCARBOROUGH — After more than half of residents who responded to a survey this summer said they wanted to tighten the fireworks ordinance, the town is slated to examine whether new restrictions are needed. 

Scarborough is one of four municipalities in southern Maine – along with Westbrook, Gorham and Cumberland – that allow the use of recreational fireworks, according to Town Manager Tom Hall. 

The town’s consumer fireworks ordinancewhich was enacted in 2012, limits the use of fireworks to five days a year around the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. During those holidays, fireworks are allowed from 9 a.m.- 12:30 a.m. If July 3 or 5 falls on a weekday, fireworks may only be set off until 10 p.m. On Jan. 1, fireworks can be ignited until 10 p.m.

Despite the limited use, fireworks can be purchased year-round at two retail stores. 

But some residents say violations are committed frequently on the 359 days a year when fireworks use is illegal. 

Michael Turek, of Mayberry Lane, said he makes frequent calls to police “because of fireworks going off on days that are not on the schedule.”

“Nobody obeys the rules,” he said. “(The) system that we have is not working.”

Of the 978 people who responded to the town’s survey, about 56 percent said they want tighter restrictions; 36 percent said they like the current ordinance and 8 percent want fewer restrictions.

One survey problem councilors and Hall noted at the workshop last month is that respondents could submit multiple responses, so there’s no way to know the actual number of individuals who participated. 

However, even “if someone took the time to take the survey twice, that suggests a level of interest in and of itself,” Hall said. “Clearly this is an issue that the community is interested in.”

While aspects of the survey suggest the result may unreliable, “the high response rate suggests that surveys may be a good tool to engage the public in policy discussions, and a follow-up survey on this issue may be able to provide greater clarity with some restructuring of format and questions,” according to findings Hall presented to the council. 

Of the options for possible restrictions, the majority of respondents said they’d like to see the use of fireworks limited to only professional events, limit the areas of town where use is allowed, and further limit the days fireworks can be used. 

Not all councilors were convinced the study provided enough hard data to require changing the ordinance language, but most agreed that re-examining it wouldn’t be a bad idea. 

Fire Chief Michael Thurlow said Nov. 30 that his department responds to no more than five fires or medical emergencies related to fireworks each year, but that “there’s no question that illegal firework use is quite rampant.”

The fireworks ordinance is tricky because it’s essentially an “unenforceable ordinance,” Thurlow said: If someone calls about fireworks being set off illegally, it’s hard to determine the source unless the fireworks are still being launched when police arrive. 

According to statistics from the Police Department’s database, in 2014 the department received 105 complaints about fireworks; in 2015, 84 complaints were lodged and, to date this year, 83 complaints have been filed. 

The idea of granting permits to use fireworks as an alternative to tightening restrictions was floated by Jeff Graham, general manager of Phantom Fireworks on Cabela Boulevard. Graham called fireworks an important “American tradition,” and said fliers detailing safe ways to set off pyrotechnics are included with every sale his store makes.

“It’s a smart way of doing things,” Graham said. 

The suggestion seemed to gain traction among some councilors, although Hall said no other community has a fireworks permitting process.

If a fireworks permit is designed along the same lines as a permit to have a controlled fire, it still wouldn’t mean those who want to launch fireworks would have to notify their neighbors, Councilor Kate St. Clair said. And since the majority of complaints are from neighbors, she questioned whether a permitting process would tackle the problems of excess noise and material generated by fireworks.

“Who’s responsibility is it to notify neighbors if you’re going to be letting off fireworks? When they give out fire permits, nobody notifies neighbors,” St. Clair said, noting that in some beach neighborhoods “fireworks just rain down on top of some of those homes.”

Re-examination of the ordinance wouldn’t be aimed at taking away the right to set off fireworks, St. Clair said. “I just think there’s a better way to be doing it,” she said. “A way that can satisfy more people than who are satisfied now.”

The council tasked the Ordinance Committee with revisiting the language of the ordinance, but did not set a deadline for the committee to return with a recommendation. 

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Phantom Fireworks on Cabela Boulevard, one of two fireworks retailers in Scarborough, could be affected if the town further limits the use of pyrotechnics.

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.