County may permit firework displays

County commissioners say they’re willing to let people shoot fireworks out in the county any time of year — as long as they follow the rules.

And that would mean securing a county permit.

Commissioners intend to start a permit process for permission to use consumer fireworks — sparklers, fountains, aerial shells and other such devices — that are banned year-round in Lawrence and otherwise allowed only July 2-4 in most of the state.

Commissioners say they want to help people brighten family reunions, birthdays, weddings and other celebrations and special events conducted in the unincorporated areas of the county.

The catch: Applicants would have to pay a permit fee, probably from $50 to $100, for a chance to secure the blessing of the appropriate fire chief and, ultimately, a majority of county commissioners.

And that won’t be easy, said Charles Jones, commission chairman. The permit process would be established primarily to help organized groups conduct tightly controlled displays, similar to those planned in the past for Grant School’s closing and other milestone events, such as New Year’s Eve heading into the year 2000.

“That’s probably about it,” Jones said, describing the types of conditions under which he’d endorse a permit. “We’d be very cautious in our judgment. We don’t want to see a rush of fireworks. It would have to be some real unique situation to get approved.”

Proposal pending

The permit application for use of consumer fireworks, the kinds of products that can be bought and used by people without a commercial fireworks permit, has yet to be written.

Commissioners have instructed staffers to come up with a proposal to go along with a long-anticipated plan that would allow commercial displays in the county’s unincorporated areas on days other than July 2-4.

Commissioners started looking into permit possibilities a year ago, after sheriff’s deputies moved to shut down a July 5 display at the Stull United Methodist Church.

The show, an annual Stull fixture for more than 20 years, eventually was allowed to go on, but not until a flurry of calls to the sheriff’s office, County Administrator Craig Weinaug and Commissioner Jere McElhaney cleared the regulatory smoke.

The church’s youth group already had spent $700 to hire a professional crew to entertain a crowd of more than 200 people. Such an investment no longer would be threatened should a permit process be approved.

“That was a stressful situation,” said R. Erin Lenth, church pastor. “This year it’s going a lot more smoothly. It’s always good to plan ahead.”

The church won’t be required to get a permit this year for its July 3 show. Commissioners are scheduled to approve the church’s plan Monday morning.

The new permits would require prospective users of fireworks, both professionals and regular consumers, to specify what kinds of products would be involved, and when, where and how they would be used.

Government review

Applications and accompanying plans for fireworks would be reviewed by the appropriate fire chief before being forwarded to commissioners for approval.

If a plan passes muster, the applicant would be free to light up the night, whether it’s for a few friends on a gravel driveway at home or before hundreds of people congregating for a 50th wedding anniversary celebration in a church parking lot.

The permits would be limited to displays in rural areas. Lawrence bans fireworks altogether, and existing rules would not change within Baldwin, Eudora and Lecompton.

Larry Bartz, a fireworks vendor and co-chairman of the Douglas County Fireworks Assn., said he welcomed the permit process.

Vendors still will be limited to fireworks sales July 2-4, leaving people to travel to Missouri to buy fireworks for use at other times, he said. But that shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

“It’s always good to allow an individual to be able to go and have a path to obtain a permit,” Bartz said. “Most people are going to obey the law. Whatever the law is, they’re going to do it.”

Commissioner Bob Johnson is counting on the permit process to free up public expression without sacrificing community safety.

“Government is always trying to restrict and limit the activities of citizens,” Johnson said. “We should also be trying to create an environment that allows people to do what they want to do, to have fun, without impinging on the rights of their neighbors.”

Commissioners are scheduled to review details of a proposed permit plan July 19.