Details on Sebastopol’s Proposed Fireworks Ban

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, May 15, 2021

Plan would allow one annual fireworks show

A citywide ban on fireworks moved forward at the May 4 Sebastopol City Council meeting, save for one public fireworks display related to the Fourth of July.

The proposed ordinance, which will return for adoption at the May 18 city council meeting,  prohibits the sale and use of fireworks, state-approved “safe and sane” ones included. The ordinance will return with amended language that only one permit for a pyrotechnic display will be granted in any calendar year, according to Mary Gourley, assistant city manager and clerk.

Further, the council directed staff to put the temporary reopening of community benefit grant applications on the May 18 consent calendar so that, if approved, the three organizations that traditionally sell fireworks as their main fundraiser of the year would have a chance to apply, and to let them know as soon as possible.

Mayor Una Glass confirmed on May 13 that these organizations — the Sebastopol Sea Serpents Swim Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Gold Ridge Post 3919 and the Sebastopol Gravenstein Lions Club — have been contacted. She also said the coming ordinance will also be presented for approval through the consent calendar.

The proposed ordinance introduced for a public hearing on May 4 states both illegal and “safe and sane” fireworks pose fire risks on top of increased litter in a county that has experienced several recent wildfires, such as the 2020 Glass fire, “and the risk posed by wildfire is anticipated to magnify due to climate change.”

According to the ordinance text, large assemblies for fireworks “result in conditions where illegal fireworks are likely to be used, as large gatherings make it more difficult for law enforcement officers to enforce prohibitions on illegal fireworks,” though during an April 6 council discussion about fireworks, several community members said outlawing “safe and sane” fireworks may only encourage people to seek the already illegal kind.

Last year, the Sebastopol City Council decided to forgo any fireworks displays and to not issue any temporary use permits for sales that summer under the circumstances of COVID-19 and health orders regarding large gatherings, Glass said, though the council still allowed the use of fireworks.

No one from the community spoke during the May 4 public hearing, but individuals from the Sebastopol Sea Serpents Swim Club, the VFW Gold Ridge Post 3919 and the Sebastopol Gravenstein Lions Club who attended the April meeting said losing fireworks sales would be a major financial hit to their work.

Lehla Irwin, a longtime Sea Serpents coach, said in a May 12 email that the swim team’s annual fundraiser covers almost all of the $20,000 in its facility rental costs to use Ives Pool.

In 2020, the council denied permits to sell fireworks a little over a month before the Sea Serpent’s fundraiser was planned to start, “so last year was rough, as fireworks were still legal in the city and were purchased elsewhere,” she said.

At the April 6 meeting, Irwin said the club is unable to raise funds by growing the program, facing reduced capacity and time in the pool due to COVID-19 measures and sharing the facilities with other teams.

“We can’t get more hours, we can’t fit everyone in the pool, we can’t take anyone from the waiting list of 79 people,” she said, with facilities rent still due this year.

To recover revenue, Irwin said the club started a GoFundMe last year where about 95 alumni donors “saved us from total collapse,” along with grants, and another GoFundMe is now active to substitute “for one of the two swim meet fundraisers we lost this fiscal year due to the pandemic.”

Future of 2021 fireworks show is unwritten

The ordinance signals the potential for other changing traditions in the city. Sebastopol Fire Chief Bill Braga announced during the April 6 discussion that the Sebastopol Kiwanis Club would not be hosting its annual July 3 display at the Analy High School football field this year.

Patti Stack, the Kiwanis Club’s fireworks show event coordinator, said this would have been the club’s 47th year hosting the event. The nonprofit needed to decide whether to place a $10,000 nonrefundable deposit on the fireworks that cost over $15,000 alone by the end of March, she said in a May 13 interview.

“We did not know whether or not large gatherings of people would be allowed,” she said. “It all came down to the health department and at that time, they had no way of knowing where we would be at with the pandemic in July.”

While the council has yet to formalize how a single applicant would be chosen to organize the city’s sole fireworks show if there happened to be multiple contenders, Glass said in a May 13 email that the idea of a yearly lottery system is under development.

The mayor said that she believes any funding the three organizations receive if the council approves the temporary reopening for grant applications could be used where there’s need, “including applying for the annual fireworks show.”

However, Glass said the Kiwanis Club informed them it is likely too late to order fireworks for a show in July. If health orders allow, a show might be possible at a later time, the mayor said.

Stack said the Sebastopol Kiwanis Club intends to organize the extravaganza again next year if the county isn’t on fire, anticipating the pandemic to subside by then. She said the club is considering collaborating with the nonprofits that would lose their traditional fundraisers to the sales ban so they could participate in a potential event next summer.

Stack said she understood some members of the community are upset that the club isn’t hosting this year, while others want the club to go in a different direction, and that the club is actually beginning to explore alternative shows in the future, like a lights display, considering climate changes and the dangerous fire season.

Last year, the Kiwanis Club adapted to losing the fireworks show by organizing an online auction that raised $25,000 to give to various organizations, mostly schools, Stack said.

She said the club does not have the bandwidth to pull off a fireworks show in six weeks and that while it may be possible to accomplish such a feat, that organization would need to find out whether it’s too late to order fireworks from a pyrotechnic company.

The Sebastopol Kiwanis Club secures its fireworks from China, she said, “So, that’s why we have to order them so far in advance.”

For the club’s usual festivities, the fireworks themselves cost over $15,000, not to mention the cost for bands, equipment and renting the space at Analy High School, which seems to be the only location with enough perimeter to do pyrotechnics safely, according to Stack.

Anyone trying to put a fireworks show together for this July will need the fire official’s approval, Braga said in his May 12 email. The fire chief said he would be the one to check over the pyrotechnics before the display for compliance with state code and regulations.

First comes a permitting process that starts with the pyrotechnic company getting a CalFire permit that demonstrates it has the required liability insurance and state licensing and then a temporary use permit from Braga’s office, as well as a letter from a property owner if the show would take place on private property.

The fire chief noted at the May 6 council meeting that the Sebastopol Kiwanis Club normally needs to place its order for pyrotechnics early in the year, with thousands of dollars in deposit.

Braga said the Sebastopol Sea Serpents, the VFW Gold Ridge Post 3919 and the Gravenstein Lions Club “don’t come in with money in hand,” and use the funds raised during the traditional one-week window selling “safe and sane” fireworks for the rest of the year.

“Not to say they wouldn’ t be able to get into the lottery, but it would probably be a little bit more challenging for them to submit their name,” he said.

On May 4, Vice Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney mentioned an idea where a future annual fireworks display could be “more of a collaborative event where these other community organizations could participate in putting on the event,” such as one organization leading the fireworks show while other groups provide food and entertainment.

Glass said on May 13 that there are no plans underway for such a community event with a single show and booths for alternative fundraisers at this point, other than the lottery system to choose a nonprofit interested in hosting the yearly fireworks display.

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