Eager fireworks retailers await permits but some cities say not so fast

Iowa's Fourth off to a bang - or not

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DES MOINES — This Fourth of July in Iowa promises to feature significantly more patriotic booms, pops and cracks as a new state law legalizing home displays of consumer-grade fireworks takes effect.

Iowans are preparing for a more festive — and critics say more dangerous — Fourth. Indeed, the state’s new version of Independence Day creates both new opportunities and responsibilities for businesses, public safety and emergency response personnel and local government officials.

Gov. Terry Branstad last week signed into law the legalization of consumer fireworks. Before, Iowa was one of only seven states with similarly or more restrictive fireworks laws, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Business opportunity

Flashing Thunder Fireworks has been operating in Northern Iowa for more than three decades. But this will be a milestone for the Mitchell-based company when, for the first time, it will be able to sell its consumer-grade fireworks directly to Iowans.

Flashing Thunder performs professional fireworks shows for cities and organizations — roughly 200 shows a year across the Midwest, said Katie Mostek, who owns the company with her husband, Jeremy.

Flashing Thunder also sells consumer fireworks to individuals and companies in other states, and has its own line of consumer fireworks.

Now the company can sell those fireworks in its own backyard.

“It is a big deal,” Katie Mostek said. “Every state around us, practically, has consumer fireworks sales open, so everybody (in Iowa) was buying them anyway. They were just bringing it back from other states, and those businesses and those states got the tax money. ... Now the money can stay inside the state. That’s a big deal.”

Mostek said that in addition to the company’s brick-and-mortar stores, Flashing Thunder plans to add more locations, including under tents.

But Flashing Thunder and other fireworks retailers find themselves scrambling a bit. The law was signed May 9, and companies can begin selling fireworks June 1.

“It’s going to be a little hectic,” Mostek said, noting the state fire marshal as of Friday morning had not completed the application for businesses to receive a sales permit.

Bellino Fireworks, based in Omaha, Neb., has been operating for more than three decades and plans to expand into Iowa this year.

Owner Vincent Bellino said his company has 130 stands in Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri. He hopes to add 50 to 60 locations in Iowa this year, he said, some in stores and others in temporary structures.

Bellino said he traveled to the Iowa Capitol many times over the past three years to encourage lawmakers to legalize consumer fireworks. He said he expects a lot of interest from Iowans, who until this year were legally allowed to use only novelty fireworks like sparklers and snakes.

“There’s obviously going to be some excitement around it, some good demand in the Iowa markets,” Bellino said. “It’s obviously an exciting time for everyone, whether it’s the consumer or businesses.”

Emergency response

It’s less of an exciting time for emergency response personnel, who are bracing for increased activity this Fourth.

More than a dozen organizations that represent emergency response and health care workers opposed the new law.

Firefighters across the state, for example, already feel short-staffed and stressed by call volume, which they figure will only increase this as more people shoot off fireworks at home.

“Now that they’re legal but law enforcement is the same,” said Bill Halleran, president of the Iowa Firefighters Association, “we can only assume that injuries and potential fires are going to go up.”

Halleran said emergency response groups think the new law was “freight-trained” through the legislative process despite their near unanimous objection. He also expressed frustration with the short time period from the law’s approval to the first holiday season the fireworks could be used.

“The law was just signed the other day, and the Fourth of July is right around the corner,” he said, noting local fireworks ordinances likely will take a couple of weeks to be adopted.

City’s choices

The new law provides some flexibility for cities, which are now determining how best to implement fireworks regulations in their areas.

The law permits home, consumer-grade fireworks displays from June 1 through July 8 and Dec. 10 through Jan. 3, but it also allows cities to shorten that period or ban home fireworks displays altogether.

Some cities appear content to let the new law take effect and see how it goes, while others are considering restricting the dates residents can display fireworks, said Robert Palmer, a lobbyist for the Iowa League of Cities.

“Opinions on what to do and how to proceed are as varied as the number of cities we have in Iowa,” Palmer said.

In northwest Iowa, the council in the small town of Moville voted unanimously to adopt the state law as written.

“We will go with the state rules,” Moville Mayor Jim Fisher told the Sioux City Journal.

To the opposite extreme, officials in Johnson County are considering not only keeping a ban on the display, but a 90-day moratorium on sales — even though the new fireworks law doesn’t contemplate that.

Johnson County officials told The Gazette the new law conflicts with home rule, local zoning regulations and the building code.

“I don’t know where we will end up after this moratorium, but we need time to figure it out. I think everybody in Johnson County is concerned of temporary sales,” Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janelle Rettig told The Gazette. “We don’t think that’s safe in any way, shape or form.”

The new law

• Licensed retailers and community groups will be allowed to sell the fireworks out of permanent structures to adults between June 1 and July 8 and again between Dec. 10 and Jan. 3.

• They will be allowed to sell from temporary structures, such as tents, from June 13 to July 8.

• Fireworks can be set off from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. from June 1 to July 8 and again from Dec. 10 to Jan. 3 each year but with expanded hours on certain dates.

• Those expanded hours will be between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. July 4 and the Saturday and Sunday before and after it; between 9 a.m. Dec. 31 and 12:30 a.m. Jan. 1; and between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. on the Saturday and Sunday before and after Dec. 31.

• Local governments could opt out of the display hours or set further limits, but the law does not contemplate them banning sales.

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