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Iowa’s fireworks sales can resume Sunday for New Year’s Day - but will they?

By Madison Arnold, The Gazette | Dec 11, 2017

CEDAR RAPIDS — For many Eastern Iowans hoping to ring in the New Year with a bang, finding fireworks for the celebration will prove much more inconvenient than just five months ago over the Independence Day holiday.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Legislature made it legal for the first time in nearly 80 years to sell consumer fireworks, establishing periods around the Fourth of July and New Year’s.

The law calls for sales in time for New Year’s celebrations to begin Sunday.

But facing intense public backlash over noise over the Forth and lingering safety concerns, many cities in the Corridor and around the state have clamped down — reducing the days fireworks legally can be set off, or banning displays completely; and relegating firework sales to industrial zones only.

Thanks in part to the new restrictions, as well as a requirement in the state law that sellers must operate out of permanent structures and not tents in the winter, local governments are reporting they’ve seen little to no interest by vendors for this sales period, which ends Jan. 3.

A local exception could be Boom Boom Billy’s, a Shueyville fireworks vendor, which is in the process of getting approved to temporarily sell out of the South Expo Room at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids.

The city — as well as some of the other largest ones in Linn and Johnson counties — has yet to officially permit any fireworks sellers.

“We’re not really aware of what to expect,” said Paul Myers, co-owner of Boom Boom Billy’s. “If we have sales that’d be great. If we don’t, at least we tried.”

In announcing it would be selling out of its store near a Waterloo mall, Crossroads Fireworks — which had a big footprint in Iowa over the summer — predicted most other sellers would be sitting this one out.

“We hear that in Iowa there will only be a twentieth of the number of fireworks retailers for December that there were in the summer,” said a statement from Matt Reisetter, one of the store’s owners.

Before then-Gov. Terry Branstad signed the fireworks bill into law in May, Iowa’s regulations allowing only novelty fireworks like sparklers and snakes were among the strictest in the country. The first sales period, between June 1 and July 8, in Iowa arrived with a boom thanks to hundreds of retailers who received state licenses to sell out of stores and tents.

“I knew exactly what was going to happen, is there was going to be a lot of out-of-state companies come in and try to basically profiteer on Iowans,” Myers said. “Whereas my stands, well, we employed local people. We gave back to the community in that regard ...”

The new law appears to prohibit local entities from banning the sale of fireworks, but allows stricter rules on their use within cities or unincorporated areas.

“Every city’s been a little bit different depending on what the city council has been interested in. And then also just making sure we’re in line with the cities but then also the state rules,” said Jeremiah Terhark, owner of Iowa Fireworks Co. The Urbandale-based company had temporary locations all over the state, including Cedar Rapids, during the summer but doesn’t plan to sell this winter.

To legally sell fireworks, a vendor has to receive a license from the state and approval from the local government where it would sell.

Because state-issued licenses last for about a year, any vendor that received one for the first sales period and is located in a permanent building could — in the state’s eyes — sell again during the New Year’s period. Those vendors number upward of 300 in Iowa. But the vendors also must meet local regulations, which in several Corridor cities sharply limits the possibilities.

Terhark, who partnered with his brother, Zack, to start the company, said its primary focus was on selling from temporary structures over the summer, but it would evaluate that strategy going foreword.

“I do think that Iowa is such a specific and small sales period that the retail structures might be a little bit more challenging to have for the entire year..,” Terhark said.

Currently, the Iowa State Fire Marshal’s Office is in the process of adopting permanent rules to regulate fireworks retailers, said State Fire Marshal Dan Wood. The process now falls under emergency rules the office put together in the short period between when the law was signed and when it took effect.

Wood said the state’s application process includes submitting site plans, proof of insurance and a safety check list. After that, an inspection of the site is performed before a retailer receives its license.

Wood said he encouraged retailers to get the local approval first.

“You can go through our whole process. Make it through, pay your fee and then the city can say, ‘Sorry, you can’t be at that particular spot,’” Wood said.

Some local entities like Iowa City had immediate negative reactions to the fireworks law — continuing to ban the use despite being required to adjust codes and ordinances to comply with sales.

Johnson County perhaps went the farthest, instituting a 90-day moratorium on fireworks sales while it could develop a policy. At the time, the senator who shepherded the fireworks bill questioned whether the county had legal authority to do so.

Des Moines took another angle — deciding to limit sales of fireworks to industrial zones, which effectively would prevent big-box retailers from selling out of their stores. Last June, a judge ruled in favor of Des Moines’s right to impose the restriction after American Promotional Events sought an injunction, the Des Moines Register reported.

Since then, cities like Cedar Rapids and Iowa City have followed suit, passing ordinances limiting fireworks sales to industrial zones only.

“It’s just unusual that the regulations they’re trying to pass seem to be somewhat of an affront to what the state intentions were, but they’re well within their power to do it,” Myers said. “There’s other things out there that are legal but aren’t necessarily in society’s best interest like alcohol or guns or things like that, but those sure seem to be legal.”

Most recently, the Cedar Rapids City Council voted last week to ban the use of fireworks in the city limits, putting the city in line with Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty, among several others.

“We do think that will impact sales next year, but at the same time I can understand the cities’ perspective because they want to keep people safe and there some people that didn’t follow the rules that were in place,” Terhark said.

The New Year’s Eve sky in Iowa may not be very bright this year.

Cities across the state report they haven’t seen much interest from retailers yet for this sales period. The could be just as much because of the cold weather as it is the stricter rules.

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