Council Discusses Residents' Use of Fireworks

With the sale of consumer fireworks becoming legal in Michigan in 2012, everyone knew there would be controversy, and controversy there has been.

The Michigan Fireworks Safety Act of 2011, as amended in 2013, states that local units of government can not ban the use of consumer fireworks during a period lasting from the day before to the day following a federal holiday.  That means that on July 3rd, 4th and 5th, any type of fireworks can be set off at any time, day or night.  But that does come with specific exceptions.

It was those exceptions that Councilperson Brian Watkins wanted to discuss with his colleagues at Monday night’s city council meeting.

“I just wanted to get some clarification;” Watkins began.  “I had a lot of comments; started probably the 30th of June, 1st of July time frame when fireworks started popping off around town.  Even within two days prior to the Fourth of July, it was a lot.  At least in my neighborhood, there was quite a bit.  I think the state law is, they mandate the municipalities let the people do it the day of, the day before and the day after, but I know there’s some play the municipalities have.  And it may just come down to communication with the citizens; say, you know, this is when you can do it by state law, and we want you to be able to enjoy that.”

Hillsdale Police Chief Scott Hephner, already having been at the podium regarding previous discussion, said he could simplify what the state law allows municipalities to do in that regard.

“What the law says is, it’s legal all the time short of the governmental unit documenting an ordinance that restricts it at the other times.  There is no such ordinance here, so therefore we cannot control it.  We can go mediate; and some of our guys did that, they pulled complaint numbers, ‘cause some folks did complain, they checked with central [dispatch].  About 16 complaints, fireworks-related, came in, about a ten-day period around the Fourth of July.  We [the city police] pulled approximately seven complaint numbers for those.”

“The law actually talks about size of your municipality and your county and what your limitations are,” Hephner continued, “and what it says is, a local unit of government may enact an ordinance regulating the ignition, discharge, and use of consumer fireworks, including but not limited to an ordinance prescribing the hours of the day or night during which a person may ignite or discharge or use fireworks.”

Hephner was referring to subsection (2) of MCL 28.457, which he continued to detail.

“What you shall not do is regulate the ignition, discharge or use the day preceding, the day of, and the day after, except for, with a unit [of government] our size, between the hours of 1 AM and 8 AM on those three days.  So you can’t restrict it except for those hours on those three days.  We can restrict it on all other days except those three days, but you have to adopt an ordinance to do so.”

“The only fireworks ordinance we have on the books right now,” Hephner added, “is obsolete.  It’s still in the book, but it references the public act which had to do with the law before this law came into effect; it had to do with, like, when they have the fireworks show at the fairgrounds on the Fourth of July, a commercial-type display.  That’s all been repealed, so if we are going to control this and respond to calls and do anything, we have to have an ordinance that the law provides we can have, and it gives what penalties; it’s just a simple penalty, a civil infraction, no more than a $500 fine with no other penalty attached.”

Watkins asked if the city’s existing noise ordinance would cover the fireworks, but Hephner clarified that infractions against the noise ordinance are misdemeanors, whereas the fireworks infraction would be a simple civil infraction.

“I think you would see a conflict from a prosecution standpoint of going, ‘well, you’re bringing us a misdemeanor where that’s purely civil.’  I look at things from all possible outcomes.  The easiest way for us to do it is to adopt an ordinance that gives us restrictions that— whatever the [Public Safety] committee decides the city wants to restrict, and then we put the penalty in there, and we move forward with that, and communication with residents on what the ordinance says.”

“I was hoping to not have to do an ordinance,” Watkins interjected.  “I was hoping there was something on the books we could apply that doesn’t need to be a misdemeanor.”

“I checked,” Hephner said.  “If there was something, I didn’t find anything, and this is what I’ve come up with.”

“Bruce is working,” Councilman Matt Bell joked, “so he doesn’t get bothered by that.”

“Yeah, we’re good!” Councilperson Sharp agreed.

Bell continued: “I’m bothered by it sometimes, as well, but I also like to light off fireworks within the days, typically.  So, on this one, I understand, but it’s just so limited, even if it’s just within a few day or a week period that we should probably just let people be free to blow stuff up.”

“I did hear some people had some pretty impressive stuff,” Hephner lightheartedly added.

Sharp offered his opinion next.

“It’s something we may— let’s just see what happens first, but it’s something that would definitely have to go to the Public Safety Committee for studying if it has to be done.  But it is concerning sometimes; people do get carried away two weeks before the Fourth of July and the week or two after, and in town, a lot of people are complaining that their pets are terrified, and I can understand that.  I just hope people would be respectful of their neighbors.  I mean, 11:00 at night, midnight, blowin’ ‘em off?  Come on, be real.  That’s being disrespectful of your neighbors when you’re doing that.  But I understand it’s a lot of fun watching them blow up.”

“We do try to respond to calls to mediate,” Hephner said.  “I worked midnights and afternoons for a lot of years, and I can tell you, from an acoustic standpoint, that if we just get a general call about fireworks in an area, they do become very hard to track down because of echoes and things like that.  A lot of times, they shoot them off, a call comes in, we get there, and we don’t hear it.”

“I’m just afraid we’ve opened Pandora’s box with telling them there’s nothing in the law that says we can do anything, ‘cause they’re gonna say ‘alright!  Here we go!’  And then we’re gonna start hearing more and more going off, ‘cause ‘there’s nothing they can do to us,’” Sharp clarified.

“Fireworks are expensive,” Councilperson Adam Stockford disagreed.  “I don’t see that happening.  I mean, if you’ve got that sort of expendable income… we spent about a thousand dollars on fireworks this year for the Fourth just as a treat to my kids, and we were one of the people shooting off some of the big ones in the city, and the College security came to the house and said, ‘we got a phone call about gunshots down here,’ and it was like, ‘seriously?’  But it was two days before the Fourth, but two days before the Fourth this year was a Saturday, so we had family over, you know?  I just… I don’t see how passing an ordinance would change anything, and I really don’t want our police officers out there spending all their time tracking down bottle rocket bandits.”

“Well it’s usually not bottle rockets that they’re complaining about,” Sharp said, “it’s those mortars they’re setting off; the ones that will rattle your windows.”

“There was a person off of Reading Avenue,” Sharp added with a laugh, “that had a hay wagon filled up with them, that put a heck of a show on.  I went over and talked to him – he’s in my ward – and his girlfriend said, ‘he’s gonna stop doing that; he’s gonna stop spending that money on this or he will not be my fiancé much longer.’  And he promised, and it did stop for a while.  So sometimes you just talk to them, be polite, be considerate, and they agreed.”

“Exactly,” Stockford concurred, “just what you said: common courtesy.  If any one of my neighbors would have came… all my neighbors were standing in our yard watching them with us; if any one of them would have came over and said ‘hey, we’ve got work tomorrow, and we need to get a good night’s sleep…’ so many of our problems would be solved if people would be civil and courteous toward one another.”

City Manager David Mackie added a proposal to the discussion.

“Maybe one of the things we can do coming up on next year is look at doing some public service announcements leading up to the Fourth, just to kind of emphasize that: being courteous and having respect for your neighbors.”

Councilperson Patrick Flannery raised attention to a potential safety issue.

“Do we have any concerns because we have the airport so close?  Because I know you can’t fly a drone within five miles of the airport, so is there anything similar to fireworks going off?”

“I didn’t read anything about that,” Hephner replied.

“You can launch explosives, but…” Bell joked.

“Intuitively, you would think that, uh…” Flannery continued the riff.

“I didn’t read anything, but I don’t think the airport would want explosions near the runway or anything,” Hephner added.

“I can see the helicopter pilots from my backyard when they land at the hospital, so I would never launch them,” Councilperson Watkins said with a laugh.

“I can hit your house with a bottle rocket, I’m pretty sure,” Bell joked to Flannery, his fellow Ward 4 representative.

“I know, and I think you did!” Flannery laughed.

“I may or may not have,” Bell said with a smile.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m ready to try and to squish everyone’s fun on the Fourth of July,” Watkins explained.  “I didn’t know if there was anything on the books that could help curtail some of the late hours on the nights that weren’t part of it throughout the rest of the year.  It only seems to be the week up— although there were some, like last night or the night before, there were some, like one or two that someone probably found some in their garage.  But I’m not ready to say we need an ordinance or anything like that.”

“Well, the options for consideration,” Hephner suggested, “if you do think of an ordinance, it might not be a total restriction the rest of the year, it could be just the time frame, like midnight to 8 AM or whatever you choose.  It doesn’t have to be a total restriction.  That kinda leaves it open.”

“I know my dog sure didn’t like it,” Mayor Scott Sessions laughed.

“Does your dog like them before midnight, though?” Councilman Bell asked.

“No, my dog doesn’t like them period.  He goes and hides underneath the bed.”

“That’s a big dog, too, you don’t wanna mess with that dog,” Councilperson Sharp added.

With that, no action was taken on the issue.

Author’s Note: To clarify Councilperson Flannery’s comments on drone operation, Federal Aviation Administration regulations stipulate that drones can be flown within a five-mile radius of airports with the permission of both the airport operator and the control tower.  Some experienced drone pilots I came across online have noted that towers and operators with which they’ve interacted haven’t required that you ask permission, but they do appreciate the notification, and may ask that you call again to notify them after you’ve finished flying.

The one difference, per the FAA, is if the airport is the center of Class B airspace, in which case you must obtain specific air traffic permission and coordination.  This, however, applies mostly to only the major airports across the country, such as Detroit Metro.

In the case of Hillsdale Municipal Airport, there is no control tower, and it is not located in controlled airspace, so a call to Patriot Aviation, the airport’s operator, will suffice. 

All of this, however, has nothing to do with fireworks, and I was unable to find any FAA regulations pertaining to commercial fireworks.  The consensus of opinions I found in my search was that airports are generally located far enough away from residential areas that commercial fireworks do not pose a danger, as the minimum flight level until final approach is 1,000 feet above ground level, and commercial fireworks typically stay under 900 feet at most, so regulation has not been necessary, and none has been under consideration as of this writing.