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Goodbye, safe and sane: San Juan County voters uphold fireworks ban

Voters on Tuesday ratified a local ordinance approved by the County Council more than a year ago that bans the use of all types of so-called consumer fireworks, including those labeled
Voters on Tuesday ratified a local ordinance approved by the County Council more than a year ago that bans the use of all types of so-called consumer fireworks, including those labeled 'safe and sane,' such as fountains, snakes, pinwheels and sparklers.
— image credit: Rob Pudim

Put away the fireworks, the party is over.

Voters on Tuesday ratified a local ordinance approved by the County Council more than a year ago that bans the use of all types of so-called consumer fireworks, including those labeled "safe and sane," such as fountains, snakes, pinwheels and sparklers.

Islanders countywide voted in favor of the ordinance, 2,863 to 2,313. Countywide, there are about 1,500 ballots left to count, but County Auditor Milene Henley didn't expect the trend to change. She declared the ordinance upheld.

That ordinance, endorsed by the council in June 2008, had been in limbo pending the outcome of Tuesday's election. It was challenged and placed on the election ballot as the second-ever referendum to make its way to a local election since the county charter went into effect four years ago.

The ordinance will go into effect prior to the 2010 Fourth of July.

Voters gained the right to create and reject local legislation through the process of initiative and referendum, which came into being along with the charter, which voters also approved. Voters rejected by 62 percent a set of fees designed to pay for stormwater improvements in the first-ever countywide referendum in 2007.

Blakely Island's Don Burkhart had hoped for a repeat.

On the eve of the election, Burkhart, founder of Fireworks Unrestricted, which sponsored the referendum and collected enough signatures to qualify it for the this year's election, was philosophical about the outcome.

"My campaign took place a year ago," Burkhart said. "I've been leaving it in the hands of voters and trying not to make this become bigger than it already is."

Nevertheless, Blakely Island will never be quite the same, Burkhart said. Those on the "outer islands" of the county do not get equal opportunity to enjoy professionally-licensed fireworks displays that take place on the Lopez, Orcas and San Juan islands.

"We spend the rest of the year nipping at each other about who left their lights on, but on the Fourth of July, everyone gets together, has some beer and wine and hot dogs, and we light fireworks. It's a community event. It's the defining time."

The ordinance banning all consumer fireworks was adopted by the council at the urging of the local Fire Chiefs Association. San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler said that the association, which includes the county sheriff, backs the more-stringent ban as a "proactive" step and because it would make enforcement easier than trying to regulate what's on the books today. Deputies, he said, are often hard-pressed in their ability to determine the type of fireworks used at the scene of a possible infraction.

Local law currently prohibits the use of fireworks which explode, like firecrackers, or fly into the air, like Roman candles. The use of so-called "safe and sane" fireworks, like sparklers or ground-spinners, has been allowed, however, but only on the Fourth of July. Professionally-licensed pyrotechnic displays are exempt from the pending legislation, which would make the use of any type of fireworks a civil infraction, like a traffic ticket, and subject to a $250 fine.

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