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Sebastopol City Council signals end of fireworks within the city’s limits

Sebastopol’s City Council signaled this week it would try to end the sale and use of fireworks within city limits despite strong opposition from three nonprofits that rely on firework booth sales to raise funds for their organizations.

The council did not take a formal vote during Tuesday’s regular meeting, though leaders did direct city staff to draft an ordinance banning fireworks in Sebastopol, which they will revisit in early May.

They also directed the city not to accept applications for fireworks booths this year and floated the idea of creating a Fourth of July event that would financially support the community groups. A committee within the council was created to explore other ideas to help local nonprofits, including the three that rely on the booths.

The area’s worsening drought, the potential for firework-sparked blazes and concerns about being one of a few cities in Sonoma County to allow fireworks to be sold and used in town were among the reasons voiced by the council to impose a permanent ban.

Sonoma County itself and every city in the county but Sebastopol, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale have implemented such a ban, though the Rohnert Park City Council appears poised to take that step during the city’s next meeting on Tuesday.

The Cloverdale City Council will discuss the topic a day later.

Last year, the city temporarily prohibited firework sales in an attempt to dissuade multifamily gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, though they still allowed the use of legal fireworks.

“It’s hard for me to conceive of us being one of the only cities left to be allowing fireworks,” Sebastopol Mayor Una Glass said. “By having sales, then we are going to be moving safe and sane (fireworks) into other cities, which they don’t really want.”

The proposed ban met opposition from representatives of the Sebastopol chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Gravenstein Lions Club and the Sebastopol Sea Serpents youth swim team, groups that have historically operated fireworks booths in Sebastopol.

Several pointed to comments made by Sebastopol Fire Chief Bill Braga early in the discussion, who told council members that the Fire Department has had minimal issues with safe and sane fireworks over the years.

Those happen when fireworks users are negligent about how they dispose of the pyrotechnics, sometimes failing to fully submerge spent fireworks in water only to have embers spark garbage fires hours later, he said.

”If you don’t have safe and sane fireworks, they’re going to get them somewhere else,“ Lehla Irwin, the head coach for the Sea Serpents, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The program owes $20,000 every year to the Ives pool to use the facility for practice and meets, money that they were barely able to scrape together last year thanks to donations from alumni and a federal loan.

Michael Fassio, a service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was among the speakers to make the argument that Sebastopol residents who were determined to get their hands on fireworks might turn to illegal explosives if the safe and sane fireworks aren’t an option.

On Wednesday, he expressed his doubts about the city’s plans to organize an alternate fundraising event.

“I suppose it could happen, but a lot of it is talk,” Fassio said. “I think it makes everything complicated. It takes away what the Fourth of July is.”

While the speakers during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting unanimously supported allowing the fireworks to remain in Sebastopol, eight letters to the City Council on the topic opposed the idea.

Among the authors of the letters was Diane Psota, who said the past 3½ years of fires and the drought make the sale and use of fireworks a potentially catastrophic idea.

“So far, west county has been spared actual flames, but another firestorm could easily burn through Sebastopol and into surrounding unincorporated areas,” Psota said.

The council will revisit the topic and cast a formal vote on the proposed ordinance changes at its May 4 meeting, Sebastopol City Manager Larry McLaughlin said.

If approved, the item would return to the council for a second reading two weeks later and become law 30 days later, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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