DES MOINES — Fireworks purveyors say the prospects they envisioned for some new-market sizzle when Iowa legalized consumer-grade pyrotechnics two years ago are starting to fizzle, due to a patchwork of local regulations.
However, elected officials in cities and counties thrust into a new safety and enforcement arena — and facing added costs and neighborhood complaints — say this is what local control looks like in justifying zoning and other restrictions that fireworks backers say pose an effective ban in some places and limit freedoms.
“There’s a little cloud over us right now on that, as far as the industry is concerned,” said Jim Henter of the Iowa Retail Federation.
Eric Turner of American Promotional Events, which does business as TNT Fireworks, said Iowa’s decision to legalize fireworks was greeted as a positive development that has since soured some due to varying local codes, rules and ordinances dotting the state’s regulatory landscape.
“I think the industry was very optimistic” initially over the prospects of doing business in Iowa, Turner said.
“But it went from good to fair or maybe a little less than fair because you find a retailer that’s available to sell and suddenly they’re not allowed to sell there, unless they are in some kind of quirky zoning requirement,” he said.
As an industry, Turner added, “we generally don’t like a patchwork of various kinds of laws regarding this product. We like for it to be applied uniformly across the state and we think it not only helps the consumer, we think it helps law enforcement as well because it’s easier to enforce if it’s a consistent law across the state.”
Legislators who ended Iowa’s eight-decade ban on fireworks by legalizing the possession, sale and use of consumer, display and novelty fireworks on a limited basis in 2017 made a bid this session to prevent local governments — including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City — from using zoning restrictions to dictate where fireworks can be sold.
But Senate File 535 didn’t get off the launchpad before being deactivated by sponsor Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, without a Senate floor debate.
Chapman said the legislation was an attempt to bring some equity and uniformity to a “hodgepodge” of zoning regulations, local fees and other restrictions that went beyond the intent of the legalizing act.
The bill stipulated that the sole regulation of fireworks would be enacted by the General Assembly and through rule-making by the State Fire Marshal. Any law, ordinance or regulation regarding fireworks adopted by a municipality, county or other governmental unit would be unenforceable — should SF 535 have been passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The legislation also provided that a county or city could not adopt or enforce any zoning standard to regulate the location of either permanent structures or tents used to sell fireworks in any location already zoned for commercial and industrial purposes.
“What we were trying to do was to go specifically after cities that are using zoning regulations to zone out the sale of fireworks,” said Chapman. “When we passed this two years ago, we made it very clear that while they could regulate the display, the state would continue to regulate the sale of those fireworks just like any other consumer product when it comes to the issue of commerce.”
The measure was opposed by representatives of cities and counties, professional firefighter associations, emergency managers, safety and veterans groups and Prevent Blindness Iowa. But fireworks companies and Iowa’s Retail Federation supported the proposal.
The 2017 law “was placed on us with very little opportunity for input,” said Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, chairman of the Metropolitan Coalition of Iowa’s 10 largest cities.
“The rights of cities are important and not every legislation is a cookie-cutter situation for each city,” Hart said. “We’re different. Our public safety operates differently, our businesses somewhat operate differently, and it’s just a challenge when our overall ability to lead our cities are infringed upon. Yes, they say local control, but I just believe that we’re taking a wrong turn towards infringing on cities’ rights.”
Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, a key driver of legalization in the Iowa House, said the intent was to allow Iowans more freedom to make choices for themselves but a compromise was struck to give local governments the opportunity to limit the use of fireworks if they felt there was a safety risk or any other reason.
However, he said, the track record since the law took effect has been some “pretty egregious oversteps,” especially by larger cities in enacting zoning restrictions or permitting fees beyond what the state charges that have “made it very prohibitive for the vendors to be able to set up and offer that opportunity for Iowans to exercise that freedom if they choose to.”
For example, some cities — citing safety or other concerns — have restricted fireworks sales to only industrial areas — which means commercial establishments like Costco, Target and Hy-Vee are not allowed to sell the products on their premises. Also, nonprofit groups are not available to contract with fireworks companies to set up temporary tent sales for fundraising in the large parking lots outside retail commercial locations.
Iowa’s 2017 law permits licensed retailers or community groups to sell consumer-grade fireworks to adults in permanent structures between June 1 and July 8 and between Dec. 10 and Jan. 3. A similar provision applies to temporary structures like tents from June 13 through July 8 each year. It also places time limits on the display of fireworks.
The measure sets up a fee structure; allows counties or cities that do not want to legalize fireworks to opt out of the use but not the sale; and bars the sale or purchase involving anyone under 18. Local governments were allowed to set their own ordinances on the use, but could not ban the sale of fireworks.
With safety being “first and foremost,” Hart said legal fireworks in his community had an immediate impact on service calls routed through the emergency dispatch network, which also dramatically increased costs not covered by the initial fee structure.
“The decision from the state to allow fireworks to be sold and for a certain time frame to be able to be displayed or be used,” the mayor added, “that was something that was done to cities. And any ability for us to work with our public safety, to work with our citizens — anything that’s done to restrict that has an impact overall to home rule.”
Lucas Beenken of the Iowa State Association of Counties said the organization opposes any legislation “that erodes or circumvents local control or local decision making” regardless whether it deals with fireworks, county finance, secondary roads or other issues.
“We appreciate the authority given to local governments in the original fireworks legislation to regulate the use and we believe local zoning ordinances can and should be used to meet the desires of the jurisdiction and its land use plan,” Beenken noted.
The association opposed this year’s Senate bill but favored House File 635, a measure that cleared the House Public Safety Committee but was later tabled.
It would have allowed local governments to classify a fireworks violation as a county or city infraction rather than a simple misdemeanor — allowing the fine revenue to stay local with the law enforcement, fire and emergency services that deal with the issues.
Chapman said there are a number of Iowa communities that fully embrace the sale and use of fireworks.
But, he added, “we have some communities that have not only banned the use but have effectively banned the sale of fireworks. As chairman of the (Senate) Commerce Committee, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we have good commerce laws here in the state and I think it’s completely inappropriate to take a legal consumer product and do everything you can to ban it from your community.
“I think it only makes sense that we shore that up and make it clear that this is a legal product, you can ban it in your community for the display but you’re not going to tell business owners who are trying to make a living that you can’t make a living in your community,” he added.
Windschitl said the makeup of the Legislature has changed since the law was passed two years and so it likely will take some time to figure out what changes, if any, might generate support if the issue is revisited in the 2020 session.
“It’s something new that wasn’t there before and so people are trying to figure out how best to serve their constituents, not just here under the Golden Dome,” the Missouri Valley Republican noted. However, it’s a problem when 25 cities have 25 different permitting fees and 50 different zoning requirements.
“We believe there should be equity and uniformity across the state regardless of where you live,” said Windschitl. “This is one of those issues with fireworks where we’re really starting to see a lack of equity and people being treated differently, different Iowans having access and opportunities to use fireworks when they see fit. It’s boiling up to that point where we probably should revisit this issue to make sure there’s not the patchwork of regulations or sale dates or whatever it may be.”'
Correction: An earlier version of this story in print and online misspelled Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart's first name.