Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The City of Howell's New Fireworks Ban

Last night, the City Council voted 6-1 to institute a ban on consumer grade fireworks. Seldom has the passing of a new law more welcome by our residents, and I hope that the new ordinance helps in restoring tranquility to our neighborhoods.

We had a very interesting discussion on the merits of the ordinance last night, and though I am no fan of what has been going on since fireworks were legalized, I did ultimately vote against the ban. Here's a little synopsis on the question, some of the points of our discussion, the pros and cons of the ban, and why I voted no.

Noise Ordinance

This problem starts with our noise ordinance. Howell has long had a noise ordinance on the books. It is found in section 652 of our Code of Ordinances. It states:

652.06(a) "In order to preserve and protect the public peace, health and safety, no person shall make, continue or cause to be made or continued any loud, unnecessary or unusual noise or any noise which either annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, peace or safety of others within the City."

It is true that it does not mention fireworks by name, but a noise nuisance is specifically said to be "anything that annoys, injures or endangers the safety, health, comfort or repose of the public" (652.01). Fireworks certainly fall under this category. Note that the ordinance does not say that the fireworks have to be above a certain decibel level, nor does it say that the offense has to occur past a certain time of night. It simply says "any loud, unnecessary or unusual noise." In theory, this renders the discharge of fireworks illegal in the City of Howell, minus those days specifically mentioned by State Law. This should have been enough.

The question then arises - if we have this noise ordinance on the books, why is it not sufficient to control fireworks usage? Either it is not being enforced or it cannot be enforced. After hearing feedback from the Police Chief, Captain and City Manager on this question, it was evident that the problem with the noise ordinance is that its efficacy depends upon other factors than just the letter of the law.

The big issue is that in order to cite someone for a noise ordinance violation, unless the officer happens to be right there at witness the infraction, a complaint has to be made by a resident. The complaint cannot be anonymous. The reason for this is that, if the offender is cited and goes to court, the complainant must be willing to come forward and testify as a witness. If the complainant insists on remaining anonymous, the officer will not issue a citation because they know the citation will not hold up in court. So the efficacy of the noise ordinance depends upon residents being willing to come forward and make an on the record complaint that they will back up in court.

The problem is most people aren't willing to do that. They want the luxury of being able to make an anonymous complaint against their neighbor and have the police interact with the offender without having to get involved themselves. The vast majority of the fireworks complaints that came in since May have been anonymous complaints where the complainant was unwilling to leave their name or go on record. The police responded to 76 fireworks complaints this summer but issued no citations because of this problem. Sure, the police can drive up to a house, knock on the door and warn the offender to knock it off, but that only goes so far.

The Fireworks Ordinance and State Law

Now we come to the fireworks ordinance. The weakness of the noise ordinance was not made manifest until the firework situation exploded (pun intended), which demanded a rigid application of the noise ordinance. It was only then that residents started realizing that we needed something with more teeth to solve the problem and residents started demanding a fireworks ordinance that outlawed fireworks specifically by name.

We actually already have an ordinance that prohibits fireworks by name, though unfortunately the State Law has made it obsolete. It is under the section on disorderly conduct, and it prohibits "discharges, displays or possession of any fireworks, except those which are permitted by State law" (662.01[B.14]). That caveat "except those permitted by State law" is what has made this ordinance obsolete, since State law now allows those very fireworks which the City wants to prohibit.

However, State law does not say that the City of Howell cannot prohibit the use of these fireworks, only that they cannot prohibit them on certain days - the day before, of and after a federal holiday - which is thirty days per year. The remainder of the year, cities are permitted to ban the use of fireworks. This is what the Council did Monday night. From here on out, consumer grade fireworks will only be allowed in the City on the thirty days out of the year stipulated by State law.

Some Questions on Enforcement

This was a tough vote for me. Right up until the moment we voted, I was not sure which way I would lean. In the end, I voted against this ordinance and was the sole dissenting vote. My objection was based on the practicability of the new law and the lingering question of enforcement.

The enforcement of the noise ordinance that we had in place depended upon people willing to make on the record complaints that they would back up in court. The police department reported that the vast majority of complainants refused to do this, and that consequently the noise ordinance could not be effectively enforced. The question naturally arises as to whether we would have this same problem with the new law. Both last month and last night, the police department stated that, yes, the new ordinance will still require people to go on record with their complaints. If the vast majority (at least 85%) of complainants refused to do this before, what makes us think they will do so now?

So, the new fireworks ordinance still depends upon the willingness of the people to make on-record complaints against their neighbors.

Perhaps just the knowledge that fireworks are now illegal will have some effect; one council member referred to this as "self-enforcement" - people, knowing that something is illegal, will simply not do it. This is possible, I grant. But it also might not work out that way. We could have a new ordinance on the books that cannot be enforced, just like the previous noise ordinance. It could be a paper tiger. It could easily go either way.

Some other issues and questions:

  • If the vast majority of residents still refuse to go on the record with their complaints, fireworks will continue, despite the ban, and people will get even more upset because they know a ban is in place and will demand enforcement. Such a scenario could make us appear weak and indecisive in the application of our laws.

  • The passage of the ordinance does not ensure that our residents will necessarily get peace and quiet because, as far as I know, fireworks are still legal in all the surrounding townships. Loud fireworks displays in Howell Township just north of M-59, Genoa just east of the viaduct, Marion off of Mason and Oceola east of Golf Club still have the potential to be extremely irritating to our residents - and we will be impotent to do anything. A massive fireworks display Saturday night north of Kroger in Howell Township kept my dog barking and my house shaking until 11:30pm. But because it was in the township, there was nothing anybody could do about it. This will not change. Thus, for peace and quiet to truly return, each surrounding township will need to adopt a similar ordinance.

  • Council was asked to consider the passage of this ordinance over the two weeks prior to the 4th of July.  Is that really the best time frame to reflect on how we feel about fireworks, during their peak season? As I said at the Council meeting, it is like asking us to reflect on jaywalking on Halloween night when jaywalking is endemic. I felt that the decision could have been made more reflectively had it been made a little later in the season and not under such a rush of pressure brought on by the influx of firework usage around the 4th.

  • I could not help reflecting that many states have legalized fireworks and do not suffer from the problems we are having. I have been to Ohio, and their cities do not erupt with fireworks every evening. My guess is that, because these have been illegal in Michigan for so long, they are somewhat of a novelty, and that if we give it time, the novelty may have worn off without us having to take any action at all.

Freedom is a radical thing. It means that someone might use their freedom in an irritating or even dangerous way. Establishing the point where freedom and public safety intersect is one of the roles of government. I do think the use of fireworks in the City was becoming irresponsible; one resident testified last night that a neighbor was intentionally aiming the fireworks at their property and setting them off because the neighbor knew it was irritating. People have reported other people's fireworks debris falling all over their yards. Clearly, a lot of what was going on was out of control. So I don't fault anybody for voting for the ban; there were lots of good reasons for it (noise, safety, etc). I don't think there was a right or wrong answer here, and my objection to it was more practical than ideological.

When it comes down to it, however, there was really no satisfactory response from the police department as to why this ordinance would be easier to enforce than the noise ordinance that wasn't working. Feeling that no law was better than a law that couldn't be enforced, I voted against the ordinance. But, this is one of those occasions where I hope I am wrong. I hope that the new law does have a self-regulating effect on people; I hope people do realize that, if they want to file a complaint, they have to go on record; I hope the police are able to enforce the ordinance that the people wanted passed. I hope my fellow Council members are justified in their vote.

So now that we do have the ordinance, what is the most important thing we need to know? Bottom line is this: If you want to call the police to complain about fireworks, you have to go on the record and be willing to back up your complaint if it goes to court. You cannot demand more and more laws to regulate the conduct of your neighbors while insisting on the luxury of informing against them anonymously. The success of this new ordinance depends solely upon people's willingness or unwillingness to concede this point and act on it.


  1. I'm willing to go on record. Unfortunately, I still don't believe it will do much good. Usually I cannot see the offender, I just hear them. And often they practice "hit and run" tactics. Since they are not on their own property, they are violating the new state law, but are unlikely to be caught as they are gone before the police can hope to show up. Personally, I blame our state legislature for opening pandora's box to make a pittance in tax revenue.

  2. City of Howell Smells like poop! if you drive down d-19 any time of the day the town Reeks!!! I live downtown- I will Light them off for all 30 LEGAL days!