WINSLOW — It has been one month since a fireworks store opened on China Road.
Since then, Winslow police have responded to more than 40 fireworks-related complaints, and police in neighboring Waterville were so swamped with calls that the city council voted unanimously to ban fireworks within city limits.
Now, an advisory committee in Winslow is taking a close look at the issue, too. The four-person committee comprises the police chief, fire chief and two town councilors. Some within the group favor a ban on the use of fireworks, while one member is satisfied with the status quo. Together, they are seeking a compromise solution that they will present to the town council as early as July 9.
On Jan. 1, consumer fireworks became legal in Maine for the first time in more than 40 years. The law authorized the sale, possession and use of consumer fireworks, and adults were allowed to buy fireworks and use them year-round between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. The law also allows municipalities to draft their own ordinances to regulate sales and use of fireworks.
Beginning in March, fireworks stores began to pop up around the state.
There are eight fireworks stores in seven Maine towns — Edgecomb, Ellsworth, Manchester, Monmouth, Scarborough, South Paris and Winslow. A ninth store will open later this summer in Presque Isle.
In nearly all cases, towns that host retail stores have had few problems, if any, according to town officials.
Winslow is the exception.
Something in the air
Jeff Fenlason is a member of Winslow’s advisory committee. He’s also the police chief.
Fenlason said the number of fireworks calls has taxed the 10-member police force in the town of almost 8,000.
“It’s taking a lot of man-hours to answer these complaints,” Fenlason said.
The calls have resulted in no summonses or arrests. For the most part, people are lighting their displays before the 10 p.m. curfew, Fenlason said. But, for some residents, the early evening explosions are too much.
“Some people work early, and go to bed early,” he said. “It’s disturbing, especially in neighborhoods where the homes are so close together.”
Town Councilor Cathy Nadeau, an outspoken critic of fireworks, agrees with the chief. She said one neighborhood within her district feels particularly aggrieved.
“They feel like they’re under siege,” said Nadeau, who is on the fireworks advisory committee.
Residents of the neighborhood, whom Nadeau wouldn’t name, have asked their fireworks-enthusiast neighbors to tone it down, but were told “‘we can do what we want,’” Nadeau said.
“As of right now, they’re absolutely right in saying that. They can do whatever they want, whenever they want, up until 10 o’clock,” she said.
Two weeks ago, during the primary election, when Nadeau greeted voters at the Winslow polling station more than a dozen of the 679 people who voted pleaded with their councilor.
“A lot of people approached me to say, ‘It has got to stop,’” she said.
Fire Chief David LaFountain has heard similar sentiments from residents. Although his department hasn’t responded to any reports of fires or injuries, LaFountain has his own gripes with the newly legalized activity.
“My personal opinion is Winslow is no longer a quiet community. As I watch TV, I hear fireworks quite often,” LaFountain said. “I have a granddaughter that tries to go to bed an a decent hour, and is kept awake by fireworks on both sides of her house until after midnight.”
In other communities with fireworks stores, evenings appear to be much quieter.
Manchester has the longest history with a fireworks store, albeit a short one. In early March, Pyro City Maine opened its doors to a flood of customers seeking sound and fury. The response in Manchester — a town of less than 3,000 residents with no police force — has been muted, according to Town Manager Patrick Gilbert.
“I haven’t gotten any complaints since the store went in,” Gilbert said. “As of right now, it doesn’t appear to be an issue in Manchester.”
The same sentiments were echoed by town managers in three other towns with fireworks stores. In Edgecomb, there have been no complaints. In Monmouth residents lodged 13 complaints and in Paris 20.
Curtis Lunt, town manager of Monmouth, said that although the town has received few complaints, he understands why it could be an issue elsewhere.
“Everybody has a different opinion on fireworks,” Lunt said. “It’s divisive. Some people love them, some people hate them.”
The novelty of novelties
Town Councilor Jerry Quirion said he’s opposed to curbing fireworks in Winslow. The vast majority of displays that received complaints were lit during legal hours, the advisory committee member said.
“People are calling in at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock to complain. Maybe they ought to realize that this is allowed,” Quirion said. “I’m not going to stop (fireworks) because some people want to control other people’s activities.”
Banning the use of fireworks would tie up local police even further, he contends. He predicts police in Waterville will have a tough time enforcing their new ban when residents have such easy access to fireworks in Winslow.
“Waterville is going to go bananas,” he said.
The Waterville City Council banned use of fireworks within city limits beginning June 18. Waterville resident Kendrick Whitney is circulating a citizen petition to repeal the ban. To get the issue on the November ballot, Whitney needs to gather 1,506 signatures from registered Waterville voters by 5 p.m. today. As of Friday, about 800 had signed, Kendrick said.
Quirion said he favors increased restrictions on fireworks use among intoxicated people; otherwise, there’s no need to do anything, he said, because fireworks use will likely occur earlier in the evening as the daylight hours grow shorter.
Also, Quirion believes use will decline once the novelty wears off.
In New Hampshire, however, there’s little evidence to suggest that novelty plays a role, according to Seabrook Police Lt. Mike Gallagher.
“We’ve had fireworks forever, and it’s always been a nightmare,” Gallagher said.
Seabrook, a coastal tourist destination near the Massachusetts border, has a population and median family income similar to Winslow. There has never been a ban on consumer fireworks in New Hampshire, but the state doesn’t allow them to be fired after 10 p.m. Nonetheless, Seabrook has recently enacted an ordinance to outlaw consumer fireworks on the beach, because residents were calling police throughout the night to complain, Gallagher said.
“I’m not sure that ordinance is going to hold up,” Gallagher said. “Some people are going to love it, some people are going to hate it.
“Unfortunately, law enforcement gets put into tough situation. We obviously have to enforce the ordinances, but, in a beach community on the Fourth of July, people light fireworks. That’s what people do.”
A few bad apples?
During the past two weeks, two fireworks stores have opened in Scarborough. While the town allows the sale of fireworks, it passed an ordinance that bans the use of fireworks on all but five days of each year — July 3, 4 and 5; and Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
Town Manager Thomas Hall said the town considered a full range of options from an outright ban to doing nothing at all.
“The state really created a problem for municipalities,” Hall said. “They created what seems like simple legislation, but in leaving it to communities to decide whether they want it or not has created some challenges.”
It’s too early to say whether the ordinance will be effective, but police fielded 12 fireworks-related calls during the first weekend after the first store opened.
“I don’t know if it’s coincident to the opening of one of the stores last Friday, or the start of the summer,” Hall said. “It’s probably a bit of both. There’s always been some level of fireworks use in the past.”
Ellsworth also just went through its first weekend with a fireworks store. Police Chief John Deleo said he hadn’t received any complaints, but police issued one summons to a juvenile.
“Some young boy had a brain cramp and thought it would be a good idea to throw a firecracker underneath a car that happened to have a little kid in it. It scared the crap out of the little kid,” he said.
Personal behavior seems to be the greatest issue with fireworks in Winslow. LaFountain has heard reports of people throwing fireworks from moving cars, and pedestrians throwing fireworks at moving cars.
“There’s a lot of things that are outside the scope of the state law,” he said. “It’s become a free-for-all out there.”
In one instance, the fire department got a call from a resident whose home was struck by someone else’s fireworks. That’s a subject that LaFountain hopes to address in the committee — limiting fireworks to sparsely populated areas, areas where residents are allowed to discharge firearms.
Fenlason said compromise is key to the success of any recommendations the committee might make.
“We’re looking at different possibilities to try to keep everyone as happy as possible,” he said. “We’re not really looking at an outright ban, but some type of compromise.”
To that end, the committee watched a fireworks presentation by two representatives from Pyro City Maine on June 15.
Lance Blackstone, manager of Pyro City Maine in Winslow, said the town is treating the issue with fairness and an open mind. In the meantime, he said, he has not fielded any complaints at the store.
“We have yet to hear anybody badmouth, for lack of a better word, Pyro City,” Blackstone said. “Everybody who comes in here just loves the fact that we’re here. A 40-year ban has just been lifted and people couldn’t be happier.”
Ben McCanna — 861-9239