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Fireworks ban to remain in North Liberty

Council to consider moratorium on sales

By Shianne Fisher
North Liberty Leader

NORTH LIBERTY– Standing before the North Liberty City Council, Interim Fire Chief Bill Schmooke recalled an incident a couple months ago that led to an entire field burning down.
The culprit? A handful of kids messing around with fireworks.
“It happens,” he said. “And it’s going to happen more if we say it’s OK.”
His comments were received at a May 23 meeting, during which council members discussed the fireworks bill that recently made its way through the Iowa Legislature, adding the Hawkeye State to the list of 43 states and the District of Columbia allowing amateur pyrotechnics.
“There are two different issues,” noted City Attorney Scott Peterson. “One is the sale and then the use of fireworks.”
While Senate File 489, signed into law by Governor Terry Branstad on Tuesday, May 9, legalizes the– albeit limited– sale and possession of consumer-grade fireworks, cities do have the final say when it comes to actual use.
“Cities have the discretion to allow use as broadly as state law does, basically what kind of fireworks and when,” Peterson explained. “They also have the ability to swing to the other end and can completely prohibit the use, other than sparklers and that sort of fireworks. Or something in between.”
According to North Liberty’s code of ordinances, the sale and use of fireworks is currently prohibited, except via a permit process requiring a competent operator and liability insurance. In a memo to the city council, City Administrator Ryan Heiar wrote that city staff recommends the ordinance remain for public safety reasons.
“I’d prefer we keep it as is, to prohibit. We’d increase our calls for service responding to these,” Police Chief Diane Venenga said to the council. “We show up and of course when the cops are there it’s not happening. As soon as we leave, we get another call.”
She said the use of fireworks also leads to calls of shots fired in neighborhoods.
“Again, it’s a different response, more officers,” she said. “I do see an increase in our calls for service and complaints on our quality of life.”
Across Eastern Iowa, reception of the state law is mixed. Marion and Cedar Rapids city councils recently allowed the use of fireworks, while it remains banned by city code in Coralville and Iowa City. The Tiffin City Council will discuss the issue at its next meeting Tuesday, June 6.
“What’s unfortunate is that the legislature made it effective immediately,” Peterson previously shared at a May 9 meeting. “We have 22 days to look through this, sort it all out, and put in a process we think is appropriate and consistent with the law, but also tailored to what the city of North Liberty wants to do.”
According to the bill signed by Branstad, both sale and use is to be constrained to the biannual periods of June 1 through July 8 and Dec. 10 through Jan. 3. Sale or use outside of these dates will result in a fine of at least $250.
Users could also be fined for shooting off illegal types of fireworks, such as display fireworks typically run by licensed pyrotechnicians. The consumer-grade fireworks allowed include firecrackers, bottle rockets, roman candles and other tube- and ground-based items. Novelty items such as sparklers and snakes are still allowed year-round, per state law.
“I’m in favor of keeping it as is,” said council member Annie Pollock. “I’d like to continue the ban of use of fireworks in city limits.”
While fellow council members Sarah Madsen and Chris Hoffman echoed her opinion, Brian Wayson was not completely against the use.
“The timeframe is way too long if we were going to do that,” he added. “Maybe a couple days around the 4th of July or New Years’.” He also said a permit process, such as that required for display fireworks, would be a reasonable ask.
Jim Sayre, who was absent, was the only council member fully in support of the use allowed by the new state law while also being respectful of noise issues.
“I’d proposed allowing them only during certain times of day that would respect neighbor relations but allow folks to have safe fun with fireworks,” he said via email.
Schmooke, however, erred on the side of caution and shared statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Commission stating nearly half of all injuries and fires caused by fireworks affected innocent bystanders in 2015.
“And, 42 percent of those folks were below 20 years old,” he added.
He went on, arguing that Iowa records far fewer emergency room visits related to fireworks as opposed to states that have legalized fireworks, such as Missouri.
“I think it does show that states that do allow for the use of fireworks, you’re going to have people getting hurt using them,” he said. “You’re going to have property damage as it relates to fires.”
Wayson, a nurse at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said he poured over injury related data as well but added it’s really hard to use injury statistics.
“If you go by number of ER visits in a year, bouncy houses are more dangerous than fireworks,” said Wayson. “What bothers me more is the fire thing.”
Ultimately, the council decided to maintain the city’s current ordinance and to also consider a moratorium on sales at its next meeting, June 13. The moratorium could be similar to that passed by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors last month, which put a 90-day ban on fireworks sales in unincorporated parts of the county.
The moratorium would allow city staff to prepare a zoning ordinance to permit fireworks sales in certain zoning districts. It would also give more time to discuss building and fire codes relating to fireworks storage.