Highlands East council plans to restrict fireworks
By Sue Tiffin
Highlands East has moved closer to restricting fireworks use to set holidays.
After much discussion and a recorded 3-2 vote, councillors chose from three options presented by acting fire chief Chris Baughman, voting to restrict the use of consumer fireworks to holidays, which includes the weekend preceding the holiday, and the weekend after Canada Day.
The issue of fireworks use has long been a challenge for councillors, some who told Baughman when he brought the issue to council on Sept. 10 last year that residents had contacted them with environmental and noise concerns numerous times over the years.
Baughman had approached council at that time after a letter from residents on Koshlong Lake asked that Highlands East council support a similar fireworks bylaw set in place by Dysart et al municipality that was dividing the lake, with residents on the Dysart et al side of the lake being restricted in fireworks use and residents on the Highlands East part of the lake being able to use them.
Baughman was looking for direction from council, noting then that display fireworks are already strictly regulated by federal law, but consumer fireworks that can be purchased at stores are regulated by provincial law and can be set off by anyone over the age of 18. He said in thinking about a bylaw, should fireworks be restricted to certain days, determining which holidays the public can use fireworks could be challenging, and that enforcing a fireworks bylaw can be difficult.
At the Feb. 11 meeting, responding to councillors’ direction to look into a restriction or ban, he provided three options to council: restrict the use of consumer fireworks to the holidays indicated in the draft bylaw which includes the weekend preceding the holiday and the weekend after for Canada Day; prohibit the use of consumer fireworks at any time in the municipality; or maintain the level of regulation that is already in place. To Baughman’s knowledge, he said, there is not a total ban of fireworks anywhere in Ontario.
In researching the effect of fireworks on the environment, Baughman told council he had found “many studies have been done and their findings published with conflicting reports for both the good and the bad.” He quoted an article in a Muskoka publication in which spokespeople with the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said that typical fireworks used by private individuals were “unlikely to result in concentrations of metals that would be harmful to aquatic life or affect drinking water,” and that “the risk to drinking water from infrequent, small scale fireworks displays is low.”
Additionally, he said, “The MNR spokesperson said that while wildlife may disperse from an area for ‘a short period of time due to loud noises such as fireworks ... there are likely no long-term negative effects associated with occasional fireworks throughout the year.’” Baughman said information about how to help calm domestic animals throughout the sounds of fireworks displays was available online.
While another article he found suggested “between 2009 and 2013, 129 fires and $2.9 million in damages were connected to the use of fireworks,” Baughman said to his knowledge, there has not been a response by the Highlands East Fire Department to a fire that could be confirmed to be caused by fireworks in recent years.
Reaching out to other municipalities, he told council, he was told that Oro-Medonte, Muskoka Lakes and Dysart et al had opted for a bylaw restricting use to set holiday weekends, while Minden Hills, Bancroft, Bracebridge and Algonquin Highlands include the restrictions in their noise bylaws and Gravenhurst does not have a fireworks bylaw, considered impossible to enforce with current staffing.
Baughman again spoke to the challenges of enforcement.
“If a fireworks ban or restricted use bylaw were introduced, enforcement would be expected,” he said. “Due to the nature of fireworks, if the complainant cannot pinpoint the property or the people responsible for setting off the fireworks, enforcement officers would not be in a position to issue a fine/penalty. When a complaint is received, bylaw enforcement would attend the location during operating hours. If evidence of fireworks could be identified (spent fireworks, admission of guilt) a penalty could be issued. If contested, it will be very difficult to prove who lit the fireworks or how long the spent casings have been there.”
As a result, he recommended that public education and messaging regarding current restrictions and safe use may be more beneficial than the introduction of a bylaw.
Councillors discussed options for more than 40 minutes, with Councillor Cam McKenzie noting the topic was a controversial one. He said he had been surprised to see many responses to a short-term accommodations survey conducted last year showing concern for fireworks use.
Baughman said, as he has in the past, that after 11 p.m., fireworks use should be addressed by the noise bylaw or by police, saying he didn’t want his fire department to show up to a party to enforce fireworks use, or instead not find the event in question and waste time driving around looking for fireworks that had long been set off.
Both McKenzie and Councillor Suzanne Partridge spoke to community events which use fireworks, including Cardiff’s Light the Night, which Baughman said could be attended by someone on the fire department staff. Additionally, that some people celebrate milestone events with fireworks was raised, and a question of whether permits could be allowed for those occasions.
To McKenzie’s concerns of how it would be possible to enforce a bylaw, Baughman said it would be important for the public to be aware that it was possible the complaint wouldn’t be investigated until the next day, when all evidence of fireworks use might be gone.
Bylaw enforcement officer Kristen Boylan, who worked in a similar position in Dysart when that municipality’s fireworks bylaw was put in place last year, acknowledged that people with post-traumatic stress disorder might also be affected by fireworks use, and agreed that the bylaw is one that is difficult to enforce, but that having it in place offers people the opportunity to anticipate and plan for when the noise could occur.
Boylan said that she agreed there would be challenges in enforcing the bylaw, that there are challenges with any bylaw, but that the key was public education. She noted that in Dysart, people were “shaming” their neighbours if fireworks were used, and that those renting their cottages made extra effort to ensure visitors were aware of the restrictions, so much enforcement was being done by residents.
Partridge said she used to plan to be home for her dog during holiday weekends when fireworks were expected.
“Now it’s to the point where it’s every weekend ... it’s happening all the time.” She said she didn’t think that special exemptions should be allowed, but rather just allowing for the specific holiday weekends to limit their use for those who are affected negatively by them.
Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall said he would be against a bylaw if council opted to not allow for a permit for special occasions, noting that “we all have different reasons for being here, we all have different interests.”
Mayor Dave Burton and councillors Ruth Strong and Partridge voted in favour of the fireworks restriction, while McKenzie and Ryall, who had asked for the recorded vote, voted no, saying they would like to consider an option for a special occasion permit.
A draft bylaw will be brought back to council for discussion at a future meeting.