Council may change fireworks laws

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Elizabethton could see a brighter New Year's Eve 2003.
   The City of Elizabethton is on the verge of becoming one of only two municipalities in Northeast Tennessee where fireworks can be purchased and fired, if the City Council passes an ordinance legalizing such action next week.
   The Council voted 4-2 with one member absent in June to adopt an ordinance legalizing the sale and use of fireworks for two holiday periods annually. Under the ordinance, fireworks could be sold and discharged inside city limits from June 20 to July 5, and Dec. 10 through Jan. 2.
   If the ordinance passes, Elizabethton would join Mountain City as the only two municipalities in Northeast Tennessee permitting fireworks to be discharged within the city limits.
   Mayor Protem Sam Shipley said the council and city officials had taken up the fireworks issue shortly before the Fourth of July holiday last year.
   "We've adopted the input from several people including the fire marshal and chief of police and tried to come up with a common ground everyone can live with," said Shipley.
   Shipley and Mayor Sam LaPorte along with Council Members Nancy Alsup and Richard Sammons voted to pass the ordinance on first reading at the June meeting. Councilmen Pat "Red" Bowers and former city fire chief, Bill Carter, voted against the ordinance while Councilwoman Janie Smith McKinney was absent. The ordinance comes up for public hearing and final approval when the council convenes on July 10.
   "I have no problem with celebrating the birthday of this nation," Sammons said. "I think it is an appropriate way to celebrate that once a year."
   "I haven't decided yet," said McKinney of her vote on the ordinance. McKinney said Monday she was still contemplating her decision, particularly the recommendations given by Elizabethton Fire Chief Mike Shouse.
   The EFD officially opposes legalizing fireworks sales, but has recommended appropriate safety standards to give regulatory teeth to the ordinance.
   "If you are going to enforce it, enforce it to the letter of the law," Shouse told the council in June.
   The proposed ordinance would allow seasonal retailers to pay $300 for a city permit to sell fireworks. A seasonal retailer would also be required to carry current insurance of at least $2 million in product liability and $1 million in general liability. The city would be named as an additional insured party on the general liability policy.
   Fireworks could not be discharged legally between 12:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. at any time.
   The ordinance prohibits the discharge of fireworks within 600 feet of a school, church or other inhabited structure and a 50-foot boundary between a fireworks retailer's business and the nearest building. Council members voted to adopt the 50-foot boundary
   "I thought fire officials know the best things for our citizens," said Bowers. "I would vote no again unless the fire chief and fire marshal changes their minds."
   Sammons felt fireworks did not constitute a major public safety threat and added fireworks were a longtime tradition of celebrating the July Fourth and New Year's Day holidays.
   "I don't see this as an issue," said Sammons. "Accidents are accidents, and accidents happened.
   Sammons and Shipley said the ordinance provides any merchant can set up a fireworks operation as long as they meet the parameters set forth in the ordinance. "In a free nation, I think anyone who has a license can sell," said Sammons.
   Carter recalled the July Fourth holiday has having the highest rate of fireworks use. He said while he was not against anyone selling fireworks, the concerns of public safety weighed heavily on his decision to vote no.
   "I've seen a lot of people injured; homes damaged by fire by them," said Carter, who served with the city fire department for more than 30 years. "I talked to an eye doctor awhile back and he said that was one of the most serious injuries they get."
   Mountain City elected officials repealed that city's ban some years ago, according to City Recorder Terry Reese. He added that despite the legalization of sales inside the city, most fireworks continue to be sold in Johnson County.
   "There are several sold across the county, but very few, if any, inside the city limits," he said.
   Sales or shooting of fireworks are legally prohibited in the cities of Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol Tennessee and Virginia, as well as the towns of Erwin and Jonesborough. Sullivan County and Washington counties also prohibit fireworks detonation and sales. Fireworks may be sold in Unicoi County, but cannot be fired.
   "Anything that explodes" was how fire department officials from each town characterized the types of fireworks banned in their burgs. Non-exploding items such as sparklers, trick noisemakers, and toy pistol caps are legal in the municipalities.
   Police Chief Roger Deal also said that, contrary to popular belief, police officers could not issue citations for fireworks violators simply on suspicion of use. "No matter what the situation is, the police officer has to see the problem before he can issue a citation," he said. Deal said three citations were issued for illegal possession or use of fireworks during 2002.
   Shipley felt the ordinance would bring a new level of enforcement on illegal fireworks activities by defining the legal times of the sale and discharge of fireworks.
   "It is actually going to have some meat to it because the police department will have something to go by," said Shipley. "We are trying to come up with something that is enforceable."