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Date of Issue: September 27, 2007

Island may halt illegal July 4 fireworks

Stung by two fireworks incidents last July 4 in which one man lost three fingers on one hand and a two-year-old was nearly blinded, Anna Maria Island elected officials may have finally had enough of illegal fireworks displays on the Island.

Speaking at the Sept. 19 meeting of the Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials, Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford called for a “united effort” to stop illegal fireworks on the Island during the July 4 holiday.

When people start getting injured on July 4 weekend, it becomes a “serious issue,” for the Island cities and Longboat Key, she said.

Agreed, noted Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger. The Island cities have an obligation to protect the public. “Our concern now must be for the health, safety and welfare of the public,” he said.

And without control, added Barford, the problem will only escalate until someone gets seriously injured or accidentally killed.

In a classic understatement, Barford said the number of people and the amount of illegal fireworks being shot off on a July 4 weekend on the Island is “overwhelming.”

But solving the problem might take an effort larger than what Island cities want to fund.

Thousands of people flock to the Island on the nights of July 3-4 to witness the licensed fireworks displays funded by Ed Chiles of the Sandbar and BeachHouse restaurants.

There are so many people on the beach those nights, said Sgt. John Kenney of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office substation in Anna Maria, that officers on the beach are literally falling over the people as they try to walk a patrol. And it might take thousands of officers to arrest and ticket all the people shooting off illegal fireworks.

“The problem is there’s just so many people on the beach at those times,” Kenney said.

The illegal fireworks problem can be managed, he indicated, but it’s a question of allocating manpower and resources toward the problem. And there can’t be any selective enforcement.

If one person gets ticketed, then everyone who lights an illegal firecracker has to get ticketed, he said.

“To shut it down, you have to shut it all down,” Kenney noted, and all four member cities of the BIEO have to be behind the effort.

And manpower is not cheap, added Barford.

If that’s what the cities want, however, Kenney said, then let the MCSO know and they’ll work up a plan that will include the cost.

Bohnenberger suggested an “Island summit” of just elected officials, law enforcement and the West Manatee Fire Rescue District as the first step, and Barford and other officials quickly agreed.

“Let’s get together in a small group first and brainstorm. I don’t know what we can do, but it’s going to take all of us to do it,” she said.

As a first step, Barford said Chiles has agreed to consider just one fireworks display on the July 4 weekend instead of the two he currently presents. In addition, he might place the fireworks on an offshore barge.

But at least one mayor remembers a time when just one fireworks display on the Island was one too many.

Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie said he remembered when Manatee County used to allow a fireworks display July 4 on Coquina Beach.

“We would have 20,000 to 30,000 people. It was a mess,” he said. The county eventually decided to cancel the event, rather than assume any responsibility for crowd control or liability from an accidental injury.

But the BIEO can’t force Chiles to cancel anything, nor does it want to.

“Licensed fireworks shows are OK,” said Kurt Lathrop of WMFR. “It’s the people who come and put on their own fireworks displays that are the problem.”

Once the “working committee” has met and come up with some ideas, Barford said she’ll contact a number of agencies involved to attend a major meeting on the issue. Those agencies will include the mayors of all four affected cities, the BIEO, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Put out the word, noted Barford. The days of people shooting off their own fireworks on the Island without any consequences may be numbered.

“Anna Maria Island will not tolerate this anymore,” she said.