DES MOINES — Pyrotechnics purveyors say hopes for sky-high profits after Iowa legalized consumer fireworks are starting to fizzle due to a patchwork of local regulations.
However, elected officials in cities and counties facing added enforcement costs and resident complaints say this is what local control looks like.
“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 cheered but enthusiasm has since soured a bit due to varying local codes.
“I think the industry was very optimistic,” 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 ended Iowa’s eight-decade ban on consumer fireworks in 2017, and made a bid this session to prevent local governments from using zoning restrictions to dictate where fireworks can be sold.
But the bill didn’t get off the launchpad before being killed by sponsor Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, without a debate.
Chapman said the legislation was an attempt to bring uniformity to a “hodgepodge” of zoning regulations, fees and other restrictions.
The bill stipulated the sole regulation of fireworks would be enacted by the General Assembly and through the State Fire Marshal. It would have invalidated local restrictions had it passed.
It also provided counties or cities could not use zoning standards to regulate the location of either permanent structures or tents used to sell fireworks.
“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 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 is 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, said the intent was to allow Iowans more freedom, but a compromise was struck to give local governments the opportunity to limit the use of fireworks.
However, there have been been some “pretty egregious oversteps,” especially by larger cities 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.”
Some cities — citing safety concerns — have restricted fireworks sales to only industrial areas — which means they can’t be sold at retails stores like Target and Hy-Vee. Also, nonprofit groups are not available to set up temporary tent sales for fundraising in the large parking lots outside retail 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 and bars the sale or purchase involving anyone under 18. Counties or cities can ban use of fireworks but not their sale.
Hart said fireworks had an immediate impact on police calls in Waterloo, which dramatically increased costs not covered by the initial fee structure.
Legalizing fireworks, the mayor added, “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.”
“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 a House measure that cleared the 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 remain local.
Chapman said a number of Iowa communities 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 ... 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 ... 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 and it will take time to figure out if changes might generate support in the 2020 session. But the Missouri Valley Republican said 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.