Private Fireworks Shows Now Legal in Albemarle

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Louise Dehne gestures towards the roof where fireworks debris fell.
Louise Dehne gestures towards the roof where fireworks debris fell.

Until now, Albemarle citizens understood that county ordinances allowed fireworks displays at public events, such as Fourth of July carnivals, so long as they met conditions set out on permits issued by county fire officials. But fireworks displays were not allowed at private events, though enforcement of this rule was often relaxed on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. Thanks to a change in the ordinance suggested by county Fire/Rescue department staffers, private fireworks shows of whatever scale can now get permits and, as a coup de gras to the serenity of a private show’s neighbors, the noise ordinance that prohibited such disturbances was also changed to make the booming sounds of the shows legal.

Albemarle County supervisors voted the changes in unanimously at their May 8 meeting.

As it stood, the ordinance read: “Public displays of fireworks may be given by fair associations, amusement parks or any organization or group of individuals in accordance with a permit from a fire official.” Displays that do not have permits are expressly unlawful.

The change to the fireworks ordinance was introduced to the supervisors by county Fire Marshal Howard Lagomarsino “as a housekeeping issue rather than a substantial change.”

The change proposed was to drop the word “public” and the purpose of that was to “bring the code in conformity with current practice,” Lagomarsino said. He said “the term ‘public’ in the existing ordinance has been interpreted by the department to mean any firework display that obtained a permit and is done before more than one person. We’ve been issuing permits based on that. If you use the strict interpretation of ‘public’ then the displays at Farmington, Glenmore and the displays at wineries that have weddings would no longer be allowed.”

While the term “organizations or groups of individuals” in the ordinance might have been meant to cover civic groups, such as the Crozet Community Association, that sponsor fireworks shows the public is invited to, the department instead considered it to include private “groups of individuals” putting on shows the public is not invited to.

Lagomarsino said that the fire/rescue service considers that “If you hire a pyrotechnician it is considered a public show.”

The change was supported by county attorney Larry Davis, who said private shows have short duration. “‘Public’ is unnecessary language,” he said. Permits impose no limits on the duration of the shows.

Lagomarsino told the supervisors that only two fireworks permits have been issued so far in 2013, (one a wedding at Glenmore Country Club and the other a wedding at Keswick Hall) and that in a typical year 15 permits are issued, mostly for Fourth of July events.

“It’s a whole new world to think about,” observed White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek. “If I lived next to a winery—and one in my district that has 85 weddings scheduled for this year—and if every one included a fireworks display, it’s a little bit different than Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve and that was it as far as [disturbing the neighbors’] peace and quiet.  I’m not real thrilled with that.”

She suggested that the ordinance be made more restrictive and that the proposed change “is not compatible with our residential areas. . . . We’re opening ourselves up to fireworks displays every weekend at 29 wineries…. Most people don’t even know this is a possibility.”

Davis suggested limiting the number of permits allowed per site, but pressed the supervisors to pass the change presented. Jack Jouett Supervisor Dennis Rooker wanted that idea brought back for the supervisors’ consideration at a future meeting.

Mallek asked if neighbors of shows would be notified in advance.

Lagomarsino said the permit application requires the applicant to notify neighbors. “The onus is on them,” he said.

Mallek said the county has experience with this approach issuing brush fire permits. Permit holders are supposed to tell their neighbors when they are going to burn, but usually they do not bother. She said she doubted that fireworks permit holders would do any better.

Samuel Miller Supervisor Duane Snow noted that fireworks noises can be heard for miles. Mallek called the noise “deafening” if you are nearby.

Lagomarsino suggested that a notification requirement be set for a certain distance from the show and the department could handle that procedurally without having to come back to the supervisors. He said that recent state law changes require that a licensed pyrotechnician conduct the show and that there are few of those in Virginia. In fact, there are about 300. The current fee for a fireworks permit is $75. Mallek suggest that it be raised to $250. Lagomarsino said that the fee has not been raised since 2005.

Rooker moved for dropping the word ‘public’ and Mallek seconded. It passed unanimously, as did the neutering of the noise ordinance.

Why change the ordinance now? One reason might be the year-long objections raised by Greenwood residents Robin McDowel and Louise Dehne to a huge fireworks show launched by their neighbors Terrence and Courtnay Daniels on July 6, 2012.

The Daniels set off a magnificent show of 490 shells, including 96 five- and six-inch tube shells (the largest fired at the Crozet Park Independence Day fireworks show is from a four-inch tube).

“The Fourth of July came and went and I thought nothing of it,” said McDowel. “Then I saw a Budget rental truck pull up in the field next door. I went over to see what it was about. They said it was a fireworks show. I said I was worried about damage to my house.” McDowel had built and moved into his house on Back Woods Lane in August 2011. They had moved here from Montgomery County, Maryland, to retire. “He said they would be fired in a different direction,” towards another part of the Daniels’ 340-acre Wilton Farm.

The launch location was less than the 600 feet from his house that fire code requires, McDowel said; his estimate put it at about 300 feet. When the show went off, debris began falling on McDowel’s house.

“The fallout sounded like hail hitting the roof,” said Dehne. “The dog was terrified. The noise was terrifying. The windows and doors shook with each explosion. We went to the basement. We thought they might be embers and start the roof on fire. The trees that overhang the roof got scorched.” The trees are a pair of hundred-year-old oaks and a younger tulip poplar. “It was a week after the derecho and things were very dry,” Dehne said. They worried that something might fall on their propane tank. Dehne is a cancer survivor who has lost a lung and she worried that the debris might be dangerous to her health. They called the police out to the house that night, but to no effect.

From then, McDowel and Dehne began a feisty and determined effort to protect their property from future private shows. They discovered that the ordinance limited fireworks displays to public shows. They had not been invited to, or told in advance about the show, and they did not know anything about who might have been.

“They had to be launched over our house,” contended McDowel, who speculated that the Daniels may not have wanted the debris to fall on their extensive gardens, which lie in the direction he was told the tubes would be fired, or other buildings in that same trajectory.

“They set up outside our bedroom window,” said Dehne. “If a tube misfired, it could have hit the house.”

McDowel doggedly investigated state and county laws governing fireworks. They filed Freedom of Information requests and eventually assembled a two-inch-thick file of documents on the subject, a copy of which they gave to Community Development department officials. They challenged county officials to enforce the noise ordinance on fireworks. They challenged a zoning department ruling that the fireworks show is an allowable “accessory use” of the Daniels property. McDowel, frustrated, admitted that he was impolitic in some of his dealings with county zoning, legal and fire/rescue officials over the validity of the permit.

Last month they took their cause to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals, where their case was rejected. They said they are still contemplating a lawsuit against the county.

In their researches, they discovered that no proper permit for the Daniels’ show exists. Fire/Rescue officials later explained that the permit application was incomplete because they had taken it over the phone. According to the process, Terrence Daniels was supposed to submit a letter identifying himself as the responsible party. The application instead said the applicant was “Wilton Farm.”

“We can prove the permit is not valid. We have them dead on the permit,” said McDowel. “There’s no signature from the applicant to show that he understands the conditions he has to meet. The permit was signed by assistant fire marshal Robert Gilmer.”

“It’s sloppy work,” said Dehne.

For now, McDowel and Dehne are stymied in their effort to prevent another private fireworks show next to their two-acre home.

“The ordinance was right the way it was written,” said McDowel. “It protected the rural areas from private fireworks shows. Taking away the noise ordinance is the real slap in the face. We can’t complain about the noise now.”