BELLINGHAM - A draft ordinance banning all personal fireworks in the city is getting closer to a vote by City Council.
The existing city fireworks ordinance, adopted in 2002 and amended in 2005, generally limits personal fireworks use in the city to Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and July 4. The ordinance also restricts the size of fireworks that can be sold and discharged even on those days.
But violations of that ordinance are common, and so are complaints to police about the noise. Some city residents have argued that a total ban would be easier to enforce and would eventually curb both the nuisance noise and the risks to public safety.
According to state law, any new city fireworks ban would have to be passed by council one year before it takes effect. That means the council has just a few more weeks to pass a new ordinance if council members want it to be in force for July 4, 2014. The council expects to schedule a public hearing before voting.
City officials already hope to reduce the noise a bit for 2013 by a more stringent interpretation of the existing law to ban sale and use of devices known as "large cakes," which shoot rockets with loud explosions.
At a Monday, May 20, meeting of the council's public safety committee, council members reviewed a proposed draft ordinance to ban virtually all fireworks within the city limits. Under that draft, violators would face a civil citation and fine in an amount not yet determined, as well as confiscation of illegal fireworks by police.
Council committee member Terry Bornemann, long a critic of fireworks bans, said he agreed that the present situation might stand some improvement, but most citizen complaints are triggered by fireworks uses that are illegal under existing law.
"There hasn't been enforcement of the existing law," Bornemann said. "If the existing law had been enforced, we probably wouldn't be here because there wouldn't be complaints about the noise. ... This is one of the reasons we have so many people rise up, like the tea party groups, complaining about the nanny state, protecting everyone from everything."
Bornemann asked James Erb, an assistant city attorney, if the draft ordinance would outlaw sparklers. Yes, Erb said.
What about small sparkling and whizzing devices that spin around on the sidewalk, Bornemann asked. Those too would be banned, Erb replied, explaining that those devices as well as sparklers are defined as "fireworks" under state law.
What about "poppers" that make a small pop when thrown down on the sidewalk, Bornemann asked. Those are OK, Erb said, because they are covered under the "toy cap" exception in the ordinance.
Bornemann said he didn't like the idea of police officers giving citations to kids with sparklers.
Deputy Police Chief Mark Gill told the committee that officers could use their own judgment on whether citations were necessary to deal with a situation.
Gill also said that in 2012, between 9 p.m. on July 4 and 3 a.m. on July 5, each officer on duty was assigned to an average of 10 fireworks-related complaints, and about half the complaints to police on July 4 are fireworks-related.
The frequency of those complaints dies down rapidly after the night of the 4th and early morning of the 5th, he added.
Bornemann said he might support some further restrictions on the noisiest devices, but he cast the lone committee vote against the proposed full fireworks ban. Committee members Gene Knutson and Stan Snapp endorsed sending it to full council for discussion.
Knutson said other cities such as Spokane have successfully curbed fireworks nuisances with citywide bans, although it took a few years of enforcement efforts and public education. Knutson argued that Bellingham needs to follow that example, because the level of fireworks activity in the city has gotten out of hand.
Knutson said he once used a spray from his garden hose to shut down a neighbor's fireworks activity at 2 a.m.
"They probably could have called the police on me," Knutson said.
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