SCARBOROUGH — In the latest round of policy pingpong, the town is poised to allow the sale and use of consumer fireworks.
The short-handed Town Council on Wednesday rejected an ordinance change that would have banned the products. The vote was 3-2, with Councilor Carol Rancourt absent and the seat formerly occupied by Michael Wood empty until Councilor-elect Jim Benedict is sworn in Nov. 30.
It’s likely that the proposal would have failed, even if Rancourt, a vocal supporter of the fireworks ban, had been present. Councilors Ronald Ahlquist, Jessica Holbrook and Richard Sullivan all opposed the ban, and a tie also would have resulted in defeat.
A state law that takes effect Jan. 1 allows the possession, sale and use of consumer fireworks. But it also allows municipalities to enact local restrictions or bans; South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Portland, among others, have done exactly that.
The council previously entertained a plan by Fire Chief Bruce Thurlow that would have allowed the sale and use of consumer fireworks, but required vendors to install sprinkler systems in their stores. Later, it passed a first reading of the full ban, with only Holbrook and Sullivan voting against.
Wednesday’s vote reverses that initial decision.
Despite her stance against the ban, Holbrook said Wednesday that she recognizes some neighborhoods are more dense than others and may merit special consideration.
“I’m prepared and willing to do something that addresses this in those neighborhoods,” she said. “But that’s not what those does. This is a straight ban.”
Much of the conversation Wednesday night revolved around whether the products permitted under the new state law would be a real danger or nuisance to residents.
David Green, a resident, read from the state law, which described which fireworks are and are not allowed.
“This doesn’t include rockets that fly off your property and start fires,” he said. “And I don’t appreciate the council telling me what I can do if it’s already permitted under state law.”
Not everyone agreed that the permitted products are safe. Councilor Karen D’Andrea, who supported the ban, said that no matter how small a firework is, it can still burn people or start fires.
She also said the products are noisy, and that people shouldn’t have to be disturbed in the middle of the night just because their neighbors want to shoot off fireworks.
“We need to protect the rights of our citizens to enjoy their property,” she said. “They have a right to that. People don’t have a right to light off fireworks.”
Sullivan and the fire chief has advocated a “wait-and-see” approach on fireworks. But Hall said that approach could be a problem.
“The fear I have is that retail establishments could come into town before we decide on a ban,” he said, and enacting a prohibition would become much more complicated if fireworks are already being sold.
Hall said he’d already fielded inquiries from two companies interested in selling fireworks in Scarborough.
“Anything short of an outright ban becomes more complicated,” he said.
The timing of the council’s vote on the second reading of the ban also could prove problematic. With the new state law scheduled to take effect in January, the deadline for passing some kind of town rule – whether to acknowledge the legality of fireworks or to regulate their sale and use – is quickly approaching.
Town Manager Tom Hall said that the matter is even more complicated because membership in the Ordinance Committee, which would hash out a plan for fireworks in town, is yet to be determined after the recent election.
To keep the ball rolling, Hall said he plans to put two proposals before the council at its next meeting. The first would be Thurlow’s sprinkler plan, which he said shouldn’t ruffle too many councilors’ feathers.
The second would amend the town’s noise ordinance to recognize fireworks as grounds for noise complaints. That would be a little more complicated, because the ordinance sets no decibel standard for enforcement. The matter would effectively be up to police discretion.
But that’s better than nothing, Hall said.