2-1 selectboard majority adds some teeth to Gilford's ban on consumer fireworks

GILFORD — Selectmen voted last night by a two-to-one margin to maintain the town's current ban on fireworks and to add some teeth to the ban that imposes fines for those who violate it.

The fines are $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second offense, and $500 for the third and any subsequent offenses.

Selectmen John O'Brien and Kevin Hayes voted for the ban while Selectman Gus Benevides voted against it.

The vote came after two attendees at last night's public hearing spoke — Walt Stockwell of Wesley Woods, who said he supported the ban because it was a public safety and noise issue and Matt Shea of Altas Fireworks of Belmont, who spoke against a ban.

Shea said all consumer-grade fireworks sold in New Hampshire are inspected and designed to be used by people who are using them for their own purposes on their own property.

He said his research showed Gilford's ban came in 1988 when consumer grade fireworks were still illegal in the state. When New Hampshire adopted its commercial fireworks laws some towns like Gilford continued to ban them.

Shea also said his primary concern with Gilford's ordinance was that fireworks can be shot off by professionals but not consumers.

Hayes also read a letter into the record from a local woman who said she couldn't be at the public hearing but was for the ban because common sense and beer don't go together — echoing a statement made a few weeks ago by O'Brien during a previous discussion about fireworks.

She also said that despite the ban, when residents call the police with fireworks complaints, the police say they're coming but often don't.

O'Brien has been the leading voice for the fireworks ban over the past few years. After last night's public hearing he said he considers it a public safety issue and that the first role of selectmen is to enact ordinances that keep the general public safe.

He said no place in Gilford is free of dried leaves and he supports the ban because fireworks are also a fire hazard — especially during the summer.

O'Brien said he didn't expect the police to be driving around looking for fireworks violators but said wants to see them respond when they are called for complaints.

Benevides has long been opposed to a fireworks ban in Gilford. Reading from a prepared statement, he said that the town is seeking to ban something that is legal to possess and use in the state of New Hampshire.

He said he feared expensive legal challenges to the ban once someone is fined and dreads the day when the town is in court because someone had a sparkler.

Benevides said he feared the impact on what he said was an already over-burdened police department and said he wanted their resources used on drugs, rapes, drunk drivers, domestic violence and other criminal activity.

He also wanted to know how the police were going to enforce the rules for island residents, calling the fireworks ban a "law for some but not others."

"Our population swells (in the summer) and we can't expect them to know about this ban," Benevides said. "Residents and guests are our bread and butter."

He said he was also concerned that summer residents have had no opportunity to weigh in on the newest version of the ban. "This will not be received well," he said.

Going to his personal philosophy, he said government, in this case the Board of Selectmen, should meet the needs of residents and that people should take more personal responsibility and not need the government to tell them what to do — especially with legally-possessed item like commercial fireworks.

He said he has never gotten a call from constituents complaining about fireworks, has never gotten any letters or e-mails, and that people have not been "forming lines" at selectmen meeting to get them banned.

"Banning legal items is a dangerous path," he concluded.

As an alternative, he suggested banning them after a certain hour or placing the matter before the voters at an annual town meeting.

"Wow" said O'Brien, before saying Benevides sounded like a lobbyist for some fireworks manufacturer.

He said if faced with a legal challenge he would simply hold up a picture of a young girl who was burned over much of her body when a sparkler she was holding ignited the clothes she was wearing.

"It's strange to allow something so dangerous," he said.

Hayes called for the vote latest ban was enacted.