Sunday, August 1, 2021

Illegal fireworks use lights up Bellefonte council meeting

BELLEFONTE — While commercial-grade fireworks are legal in Pennsylvania, they are not to be used within 150 feet of an occupied building, meaning there is virtually no place in Bellefonte where they can be launched. Despite that, Mayor Tom Wilson said he spoke to the two borough officers on duty July 4 and said police were “pretty busy” handling firework related complaints.

During a July 6 borough council meeting, Wilson struggled to put into words the number of fireworks he saw and heard in town over the holiday weekend.

“I don’t know how people were out of town or in town for the Fourth of July, but it was probably the most, ah …” said Wilson as he searched for the word he wanted to use. He was helped by Borough Council President Joanne Tosti-Vasey who suggested “vibrant.”

Wilson agreed and said. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, this is unbelievable.’”

“Some people were critical, saying ‘Where are the police?’ Well, the police were all over town trying to control some of this,” added Wilson. He said there were a large number of people who wanted to come to the meeting to discuss the issue.

“This is not one or two people complaining about something, this is 40, 50 … 60 people who have had it,” said Wilson. “I don’t know what we can do, but I would suggest we do everything in our power to discourage the ignition of fireworks within the borough.

“The police were overrun,” Wilson said. “It was like Custer at Little Bighorn.”

Police Chief Shawn Weaver said that Wilson was correct. “It was pretty bad,” he said.

Weaver related that when officers approached a fireworks situation, they treated it just like any other disorderly conduct, noise compliant or nuisance calls.

“We always try to correct, inform and give the person a chance to cease what they are doing and usually that takes care of it,” said Wilson. He said they did have one repeat offender who was cited, but “you get the desired result. We didn’t have any issues last night whatsoever. There was not a single peep. However, the problem is, what do we do next year? There might be 30 people who weren’t warned who are doing it. Moving forward, I think we do adopt a zero-tolerance policy prior to the big events.”

After speaking with the district magistrate, he said a struggle is the law is so technical, noting that “you really have to have a piece of that firework that was set off” to make a determination if the law was broken or not. He suggested making a local ordinance against the use of fireworks and advertising it before the holiday in the future.

“We can’t go giving warnings to everyone,” he said. “There are 6,000 people in the borough, and you will never hear the end of it.”

Council member Jon Eaton said state law states, “consumer grade fireworks can be exploded if you are 150 feet away from an occupied building. Basically, there is no place in Bellefonte where you can set off these consumer grade fireworks, so why do we need an ordinance?”

Weaver said a borough ordinance would eliminate technicalities and make “anything that flashes, anything that emits a spark, sparkles, anything that could be considered a firework,” illegal to use in Bellefonte.

The borough decided to move the issue to the safety committee for further review. Safety committee member Randy Brachbill said the issue was reviewed two or three years ago when complaints were raised. He said changes need to be made at the state level.

“If there is a blame to be put, put it in on the Pennsylvania legislation. If you want to write a letter, write it to the Pennsylvania legislation. They are the ones who passed and approved those commercial fireworks to be available for just about everybody,” said Brachbill. “This action created safety issues not only for Bellefonte, but for other communities in the state as well.”

He suggested the borough provide more education about the state law before potential events and holidays when people might use fireworks.