RANSON – Some see brightly colored bombs bursting in air as indispensable to their backyard Fourth of July celebrations as well as grilled hot dogs and cold beer. Others consider preserving their domestic tranquility a treasured American ideal that the patriotic holiday also represents.
Often those different folks are neighbors in Jefferson County.
Reacting to another year of Independence Day pyrotechnic complaints, Ranson Mayor Keith “Duke” Pierson said it’s time to have more consistency among different fireworks rules and restrictions across the county.
County ordinances allow the use of many increasingly powerful consumer-grade fireworks. But restrictions in the county’s five municipalities mostly ban the use of fireworks, except for handheld sparklers or sometimes other products offering a mild pop or fizzle.
Municipal boundaries sometimes split neighborhoods or run between backyard picket fences, especially along the puzzle-piece edges defining the cities of Ranson and Charles Town. As a result, some residents in both cities aren’t aware their properties lie within those municipalities.
So where fireworks can light up the sky — and where they aren’t allowed, has caused considerable confusion, said Charles Town Mayor Bob Trainor.
“There is no consistency on whether or not you can light off fireworks,” Trainor said. “You can be on one side of the street and it’s illegal to light off fireworks, and on the other side of the street, it is legal because you’re in the county.”
Pierson and Trainor want to jump-start a discussion among the county’s five mayors and the county commission about those jurisdictional differences. Commissioner Steve Stolipher is on board for such a discussion too.
However, Stolipher added that any action taken to make fireworks regulations consistent across the county should not impose a ban. “We need to protect the patriot who wants to ignite fireworks as well as their neighbor who does not want their property damaged,” he wrote in an email.
Three years ago, responding to some citizen complaints that late-night fireworks were disturbing their peace, a previous county commission voted 3-2 against imposing time restrictions on discharging fireworks in the county. The majority of commissioners back then determined that late-night fireworks noise wasn’t a significant or sustained problem.
Current Commissioner Jane Tabb supported imposing time limits. However, Commissioner Caleb Hudson voted against the idea.
Stolipher said perhaps establishing setback space requirements between neighboring properties might avoid problems. He added that he would ask state fire marshal officials for recommendations.
County commissioners received few complaints about fireworks over the Fourth of July weekend, he said.
In 2016, state lawmakers expanded the kind of fireworks that could be sold in West Virginia. But Pierson and Trainor said that only exacerbated problems for municipalities.
In the county, state regulations apply. People can set off whatever fireworks are legal to buy from licensed retail vendors in West Virginia. So county residents can light up the sky with a wide variety of booms and bursts — all night long, any night of the year. And fireworks available to purchase include loud and launching stunners such as exploding rockets, missiles, mortars and helicopters.
“Is it worth selling them in the community and then trying to prevent people from using the fireworks?” Pierson asked rhetorically during a council meeting last week. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Trainor agreed. “Fireworks can be going off in the county and be impacting people in the city,” he pointed out. “And people in the city are going, ‘Look, they’re going off across the street. I can buy fireworks. So why can’t I use them?’”
“Right now, in order to enforce our fireworks ordinances, it’s nearly impossible,” he said. “It’s sort of like the wild west in a little way.”
But Stolipher commented that he doubted that banning fireworks sales in the county or the state would alter the use of fireworks. People who enjoy fireworks will just drive to another state to buy them, he said. He recalled growing up in the county when some residents would travel as far as South Carolina “to purchase the really good ones.”
After riding through Charles Town with Trainor on the Fourth to enforce the city’s fireworks rules, Chief of Police Chris Kutcher described what became a futile attempt. They issued warnings to the city’s residents and passed out copies of the city’s fireworks ordinance.
“We were trying to be proactive, but I would have 250 [fireworks] going over my head while I’m sitting there trying to talk to people,’” Kutcher reported. “We tried to get compliance, but I don’t think we got it. When we drove around the corner, [the fireworks] went right back up.”
Kutcher called on Charles Town’s elected officials to reconsider the city’s ban on most fireworks to adopt a measure that police officers can more reasonably enforce.
Across town, Ranson Police Chief Robbie Roberts said three police officers stayed busy throughout the Fourth responding to fireworks complaints. Still, those officers managed the situation without becoming overwhelmed, he said.
Trainor made the point that people lighting off fireworks in the city are overwhelmingly well-intentioned. They’re just out to enjoy the holiday with their family and friends. “They got their kids out there,” he said. “They’re taking safety precautions — most of them.”
Trainor acknowledged a divide between people who enthusiastically enjoy fireworks and those who intensely dislike them. Still, he said most residents just don’t want to hear fireworks late into the evening.
“We just have to have a holistic way of looking at it,” he said of fireworks regulations. “What we’re doing right now is not working.”