Jun. 16—A decade-long experiment with allowing the sale of consumer fireworks in Maine could face major changes — and perhaps come to an end entirely.
Lawmakers postponed a decision this session on a proposal by state Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a Lewiston Democrat, to ban the sale of fireworks to consumers in hopes that by next winter a compromise may prove possible that would impose more restrictions without shutting down the business entirely.
Cloutier said she'd like to see "a solution that works for everyone," but it isn't clear what that might be.
Among the ideas tossed around by officials are restricting sales to certain times of the year — around the Fourth of July and some other major holidays perhaps — or requiring people who want to set off fireworks to get a burn permit.
Legislators said they've heard from many Mainers who are unhappy with neighbors who are shooting off loud and potentially dangerous fireworks throughout the summer, disrupting sleep, startling animals, worrying veterans and other issues.
Some of the growing criticism of fireworks may be spurred in part by a 25% increase in sales of consumer fireworks last year, officials said, a consequence of canceled professional shows and a way for people to fend off boredom during the pandemic.
Speaking in favor of a ban at a May committee session, Scott Harriman of Lewiston asked decision-makers to "once again allow us the peace and quiet we used to enjoy for most of our lifetime and prohibit consumer fireworks for good."
But others, including Steven Marson, who owns five stores operated by Central Maine Pyrotechnics and Pyro City Maine, said banning fireworks won't stop people from buying them illegally in New Hampshire and firing them off all over the state without any safety advice or regulation.
The state dropped its restriction on the sale and use of consumer fireworks in 2012 but gave municipalities the right to regulate or prohibit them with local ordinances. More than 50 have imposed some rules and 20 of them have barred consumer fireworks entirely.
Rules vary among the towns that have adopted regulations. In Auburn and Rumford, for example, consumer fireworks cannot be sold or used. There is at least a $200 fine for anyone caught disobeying the statute.
But those seeking a statewide ban said that local rules are routinely flouted.
"Some may argue that cities and towns should decide for themselves whether they want to allow fireworks or not," Harriman told lawmakers, "but in reality they do not have that ability, no matter what their local ordinances say."
"As long as people can simply visit a different town to purchase fireworks they will continue to set them off in our neighborhoods and cause ordinary citizens to suffer," he said.
A retired Air Force officer, Constance Rohret of Cutler, told lawmakers he chose to move to Maine because of "the overwhelming beauty, peace and tranquility" that it offers.
Rohret said he can't see any reason "for allowing consumers unfettered access to fireworks throughout the entire year, day after day," sometimes well into the night.
"The peace I had hoped to continue to enjoy here has frankly been shattered with the random booming of fireworks over the quiet bay on which I live throughout the year," he said, reminding him of the explosions heard in war.
"My right to enjoy my property in this rural area has literally turned into a day-by-day hope not to hear what sound like very large combustible fireworks," the retired officer said.
Peter Irving, a Vietnam War veteran who lives on a remote lake in Northfield, told legislators that consumer fireworks shot off randomly sounds like cannon fire or gunshots that impact his post-traumatic stress disorder.
"To claim on the one hand Maine cares about its veterans and yet on the other hand ignores the very real consequences suffered by veterans as a result of the explosives caused by fireworks is untenable," he said in joint testimony with his wife, Rebecca Irving.
The flip side of the debate is that a ban simply won't work.
Daniel Peart, an executive with Phantom Fireworks, the nation's largest retailer with two stores in Maine, said the state opened the doors to the sale of fireworks because it saw so many people bringing them back from states where they can be purchased, especially New Hampshire.
"Mainers have already proved they're going to use fireworks anyway," he said, so it's probably best to focus on reasonable restrictions that people may obey.
He said his firm is open to a compromise that would allow sales at some times of the year, including the period around Independence Day, New Year's Day and other big holidays, including perhaps the lunar new year and the Hindu festival of Diwali.
Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Hallowell Democrat, said adding date restrictions is "something I can definitely get behind."
Marson said, though, that he can't afford to keep his 39 employees on the payroll year-round if his stores are only allowed limited openings. That would mean, he said, that he'd have to rely on temporary workers who wouldn't have the same training and expertise, including the knowledge to offer the best advice to buyers.
He said legislators ought to realize they're much more likely to hear from unhappy residents about fireworks than they are from what he thinks is a majority who don't have a problem with the existing law.
Cloutier said she recognizes the investment that Marson and others have made in the business, but it's important as well to take note of the many people who have invested in the state because of its traditional peacefulness.
Another fireworks-related bill that lawmakers are eyeing would impose decibel restrictions on fireworks near working farms in a bid to have them be less noisy.
But Peart said it would be impossible to comply with it because there is no way within the fireworks industry to ensure lower volumes. He said that sort of restriction would amount to "a backdoor ban."
Among those seeking relief from the noise is Margaret Bailey of Durham, whose horses are terrified when fireworks are booming nearby.
"Does a person have the right to disrupt a whole neighborhood, damage livestock, cause untold misery to pets merely because they derive pleasure from creating loud noises, or will the rights of a homeowner to safely enjoy their property prevail?" Bailey asked legislators.
Mary Small of Bath, a former Republican state senator, said setting off fireworks is "perhaps one of the most selfish acts in which Mainers participate."
She said the users are basically telling their neighbors, "I don't care if I wake you up, cause your PTSD to erupt, make your pets run away or in the sad case in Yarmouth last summer, kill your horse. As long as I am enjoying myself, you don't matter."