Fireworks Ban Fizzles In D.C. Council Vote

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fireworks will sizzle. And, most important to a majority of D.C. Council members, sparklers will sparkle in the city this Fourth of July.

The council rejected an emergency ban on all fireworks in an 11 to 2 vote last night toward the end of a nine-hour meeting during which the legislative body approved a heavily amended noise bill. The council also gave final approval to the budget support act of the 2009 fiscal spending plan, which totals $5.7 billion in local funds.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) pushed for the ban and announced the proposal at a news conference Friday in front of a firehouse with a table full of miniature pyrotechnics. Only professional staging of fireworks would have been permitted if the ban had passed.

But council members were wary of approving legislation just a few weeks before vendors are legally allowed to set up their makeshift stands along Georgia Avenue and other thoroughfares.

A few council members said they opposed the outright ban because the city already prohibits the private use of fireworks that shoot into the sky. According to the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Web site, the city permits 10 types of fireworks.

Cherry bombs? Illegal. Sparklers longer than 20 inches? Illegal.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and others talked nostalgically about playing with sparklers when they were younger or enjoying them with their children.

"My goodness, they're on birthday cakes now," said Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large).

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said an emergency ban would be unfair to vendors who have purchased their products for the seasonal sales. He voted "no. With a bang."

If the ban had passed, the District would have joined Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, the states listed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission as banning all consumer fireworks. Locally, Montgomery and Prince George's counties do not allow private use of fireworks. Other jurisdictions, including Fairfax County, have a list of permitted fireworks.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said residents who do not like the boom and whistle in their neighborhoods told him that all sides should be aired at a public hearing.

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) chimed in that Graham had proposed a ban last year but was unable to get a hearing through the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, headed by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

Wells and Graham were the lone dissenters.

In other business, the council gave final approval to a significantly tweaked noise bill in a 9 to 4 vote after a hard-hitting lobbying campaign by labor unions that several council members described as mean-spirited and unfairly targeted at two members up for reelection.

The Noise Control Amendment Act was so changed from its initial draft that the main supporters -- Wells and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) -- abandoned it. They were joined by David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).

Under the amended legislation, noncommercial public speech during the day would be restricted to no more than 80 decibels, or 10 decibels above the ambient noise level when measured from inside the nearest occupied dwelling in low-density residential zones.

In short, people can still get really loud with amplified noise, particularly downtown.

The vote marked a significant turn of events with a bill that Wells began pushing last year, initially seeking relief from street preachers for residents in the H Street neighborhood and finding that other neighborhoods were suffering.

David Klavitter, the H Street area resident who started his "Quest for Quiet" blog to push for the legislation, quickly posted a message yesterday that said, "The District of Columbia has a new and toothless noise bill."

After the vote, there were hugs and high-fives among members of labor unions that argued that the proposed noise law could endanger their right to protest. Under an umbrella group dubbed the Speak and Be Heard Coalition, they launched a radio ad that chided council members Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Brown. Both are seeking reelection and sponsored an amendment last month that they said was a compromise, pushing the proposed noise level from 70 to 80 decibels.

Some legislators said the radio ad went too far.

"I don't think politicians need to take it personally," said Rita Leiphart, a banquet server at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. "What's important is that we were fighting for free speech."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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