Fireworks sales proposal for Merced County sparks discussion

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 13, 2013 

— Legalizing fireworks sales in Merced County's unincorporated areas triggered a debate at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

Proposed by county fire officials, the ordinance would allow nonprofit groups and residents to sell and use "safe-and-sane" fireworks from June 28 to July 4 in unincorporated parts of the county.

Safe-and-sane fireworks are those tested and approved by state fire marshal's office.

After a public hearing Tuesday, county supervisors deferred the item until the next board meeting May 21.

The board expressed concerns that the ordinance didn't have a land use policy outlining where the fireworks booths would and wouldn't be allowed.

"One of the concerns raised this morning is there's no land use regulations for nonprofits," said James Fincher, Merced County counsel. "We needed to have some sort of code enforcement to have control of locations."

District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh agreed that the ordinance needs "a little policy direction" on land use.

"Is this going to be like the fruit stand issue?" Walsh asked. "How's it going to be permitted and how do I know if my neighbor can't set one up in their back yard?"

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Division Chief Mark Lawson said his agency and state fire marshal would be responsible for issuing permits and approving booth locations.

Although there's no limit on the number of stands, Lawson said the ordinance would allow the Fire Department to fine non-approved booths. And that revenue goes back into the county's general fund, he added.

Lawson said the ordinance would free up his agency to concentrate on illegal fireworks. "If it were legalized for use and sale, now we can focus specifically on the dangerous or illegal fireworks."

It allows nonprofit organizations a way to raise funds for their programs, he said. About eight non-profits have expressed interest in running fireworks booths in unincorporated areas of the county, according to Lawson.

Despite an early wildfire season, Lawson said he isn't concerned about the fireworks causing more accidental fires because of the county's education and enforcement programs. "We've worked closely with other county departments to have a very successful hazard abatement program," Lawson said.

The abatement program, which has a 90 percent compliance rate, identifies properties with overgrown weeds and other potential hazards, he said.

"If you have a successful program, you're going to reduce the chances of having associated fires from fireworks," he said, "especially in those vacant lots and fields, where you typically have a lot of the hazards."

Louis Linney, vice president of TNT Fireworks, Inc., spoke during Tuesday's public hearing, expressing surprise that the ordinance wasn't approved.

Most other counties do not have a policy addressing land use, he added. "Zoning restrictions will wipe out quite a few locations that would be appropriate," Linney said.

Before returning the issue to the board, Lawson said he's planning to research answers to the supervisors' questions by contacting other counties.

"I think they brought up some very valid points to further address," he said. "One thing we're going to do is reference some other counties to see if they have a similar process and see if that would answer those questions."

If the ordinance is approved on May 21, it would take effect 30 days later, allowing seven days before the fireworks booths can be set up. "We're cutting it very short, but I'm very optimistic we can make it work," Lawson said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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