Juneau Assembly mulls partial fireworks ban and outlawing sales

(Photo courtesy Raeanne Holmes/Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)
The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska opened this fireworks shop off Fish Creek Road on Douglas Island ahead of the Fourth of July in 2020. Tlingit and Haida Development Director Will Ware says it didn’t have an official name, but he’s working on making its nickname, “Smoke Signals,” official for 2021. (Photo courtesy Raeanne Holmes/Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)

Without a permit, using fireworks — even sparklers — would be banned 361 days of the year in most populated areas of Juneau under a proposed local law. The controversial measure would also restore a past ban on the sale of fireworks in Juneau.

There’s only one retailer in town the sales ban would affect. As proposed, the City and Borough of Juneau’s top attorney said the local ordinance would have kept the pop-up fireworks business that the Tlingit and Haida tribal government started last year from operating.

Richard Petersen is the president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. He said the location the tribe leases for the fireworks shop is sovereign Indian Country.

“The CBJ can’t tell us not to sell fireworks there,” Peterson said.

City Attorney Rob Palmer said in an interview Tuesday that the tribal sovereignty issue there probably is not as clear cut as either the city or tribe would like. He didn’t address tribal sovereignty when he discussed the proposed ordinance in an Assembly committee meeting.

But Palmer did point out that the tribe’s 2020 retail permit from the state carried a condition the city could trigger.

“The state identified on that permit, up on the header of that permit, that if the local government prohibited sale of fireworks, that permit was not valid,” Palmer said.

Tribal officials could not be reached for follow-up questions about if getting a retail permit from the state is itself a legal necessity or more of an act of a good neighbor.

Tribal officials said they intend to keep the business going. President Peterson declined to share specific dollar figures but said it was profitable. He said it helps fund scholarships and an elders’ lunch program.

Regulatory issues aside, Peterson said he understands the conflicts that inconsiderate use of fireworks cause.

“It got pretty radical in some of the neighborhoods, right? And I share the concerns, I live in a neighborhood, I have a dog. It got kind of crazy,” Peterson said.

He said at every sale, they ask the buyers to take the fireworks out the road and clean up after themselves.

“But you know, that’s really a responsibility of the buyer,” Peterson said. “I’m very open to ideas and how we can be good neighbors and be part of the solution.”

He said tribal officials have been in touch with some Juneau Assembly members working on the ordinance. Peterson said he hopes to find a win-win solution.

During the Juneau Assembly’s initial discussion of the draft in committee on Feb. 1, there were signs the sales ban may not go far.

“I thought, during the time of the pandemic, that the tribe was actually very creative in figuring out how to sell fireworks, and they made a lot of money,” said Mayor Beth Weldon. “… To do a total prohibition? I don’t know that I would vote for that ever.”

The state has significant planning and liability requirements for fireworks retailers to get permits. So, Weldon said, it’s not easy for just anyone to set up shop.

The rest of the proposed ordinance further restricts where and when regular people can and can’t set off different types of fireworks. Right now, noise rules bar the use of loud fireworks in most populated parts of Juneau, with exceptions around New Year’s and Fourth of July.

Under the proposed ordinance, big public displays would still be OK with the right permits, and regular people could still use anything on the market in more remote areas. Though federal codes generally don’t allow fireworks at all in the more accessible parts of the Tongass National Forest.

But inside the city’s fire service area that covers most of Juneau’s road system, using fireworks would be mostly banned, but with an exception around New Year’s and the Fourth of July for “non-concussive” fireworks. City officials could also designate certain places inside the fire service area that would be OK to use non-concussive fireworks.

Now about “concussive” and “non-concussive.” State law defines 11 categories of fireworks that can be sold in Alaska: skyrockets, mortar shells, fountains, sparklers, roman candles and so on. Palmer, the city attorney, defined “concussive” fireworks as a subset of those 11 categories when he drafted the ordinance for the Assembly.

“So this gets kind of to the core question of what’s a concussive firework versus what’s a showy firework or non-concussive firework,” Palmer said. “I think there’s some debate here, and I just encourage you to work with whoever you want to to kind of understand those definitions a little bit more and see if you’re content with them or want them to change.”

Assembly member Michelle Hale helped write the draft ordinance. She said she really wants to target the booming, concussive fireworks.

“What I have heard from people, what I have experienced myself, is that that’s where real trauma comes in from the fireworks,” Hale said. “Because they are completely unpredictable, they have a huge shock value, and they cause the most consternation.”

The booms don’t just affect people, of course.

“It’s my dog shaking when I’m not shaking, is bothering me,” said Assembly member Loren Jones.

Hale framed the ordinance as a starting point for the other Assembly members.

“I appreciate all of the questions and I look forward to making the modifications that we need to make to this ordinance to actually make it work for people. So, it’s a draft,” she said.

The Assembly discussed a possible fireworks ban in 2012 that didn’t go anywhere. Police officials at the time said enforcing a fireworks ban would be an unwelcome strain. Sales were not allowed back then.

The topic will be on an Assembly committee’s agenda again on Monday.

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