New rules put squeeze on legal fireworks in Anchorage

CHANGES: Assembly-approved restrictions limit display space.

Anchorage Daily NewsDecember 27, 2011 

People watch as fireworks light up the sky near a Christmas tree during a New Year's Eve celebration in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2005.

AL GRILLO / ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVE

Anchorage Bowl dwellers might need to visit a friend with a large lot in South Anchorage, the Hillside or the Eagle River-Chugiak area to legally set off personal fireworks on Saturday night.

After passing a law that made shooting off fireworks legal all over town last New Year's Eve, the Anchorage Assembly voted to clamp down for New Year's Eve 2011.

The change, approved just two weeks ago, made it against the law to set off fireworks within 200 feet of another person's house.

A city planner did the math Tuesday. A person would need a lot of about an acre or larger to get that far away from a neighboring house, said planner Francis McLaughlin, and that assumes the adjoining lots are each at least 200 feet wide, with houses in the middle.

If a lot were narrow and long, an acre might not do it. It's possible some three-quarter-acre lots would have a legal spot, but not likely with a half-acre lot or smaller, he said.

That pretty much limits legal fireworks to the larger rural and suburban lots in South Anchorage, the Hillside, and Eagle River and Chugiak in North Anchorage. Not Midtown. Not East Anchorage. Not the Bowl, generally, because most single-family lots aren't big enough.

Assembly chairwoman Debbie Ossiander proposed the 200-foot rule, saying she was responding to people who felt their neighbors shot off fireworks too close to their houses last year.

"There were people last year who were not reasonable," Ossiander said this week. "Shooting off fireworks in front of someone's bedroom window. Shooting them off near a dog kennel."

But she regrets that the Assembly vote took place so close to New Year's Eve, on Dec. 13.

And she thinks the Assembly should have reduced the 200-foot requirement to a shorter distance like 50 feet. The Assembly rejected a move to make it 50 feet.

Ossiander thinks the law as it stands is somewhat flexible. "If you and your neighbor agree," that should make a difference, she said. "That's how I interpret the law."

In responding to one resident who e-mailed, asking where his family could set off fireworks, Ossiander said she doubts the law will be strictly enforced. She suggested probably not many people would object to someone using a vacant lot for fireworks.

In her opinion, though, personal fireworks should be banned. If personal fireworks continue to be legal, more changes need to be made, such as limiting the type of fireworks that can be set off, she said.

"If nobody else does anything I guess I'll start working on an ordinance."

But at least one other Assembly member has plans.

"I intend to put it on the April ballot," said Assemblyman Dick Traini, the Assembly's main backer of legalizing personal fireworks. "Should fireworks be legal in Anchorage (on New Year's Eve), up or down. Let the voters decide."

In January, he said, he'll propose a ballot measure for the city election in April.

Meantime, Capt. Bill Miller, head of the crime suppression division for the Anchorage Police Department, says he thinks there will be as many people setting off fireworks in Anchorage this year, when it's mostly illegal, as last year, when it was OK.

"I imagine the place is going to go nuts around 11:30 or 12," Miller said. Some people likely didn't get the message the law has changed, and others don't care, he said.

The closest place for Anchorage residents to buy fireworks is in Houston, along the Parks Highway, north of Wasilla.

Robert Hall, owner of Gorilla Fireworks there, said it's hard to tell if as many Anchorage residents are buying -- fireworks are also legal in the Valley on New Year's Eve, and in Houston all the time. And lots of people wait until the last minute to buy.

So far, "This year sales are almost the same as last year," Hall said. "It'll have an impact, but not huge."

Miller said police will not have any extra officers on duty just for fireworks, but will have as many as half a dozen officers for beefed-up enforcement of people driving under the influence on New Year's Eve.

Fireworks calls will be placed in a "call stack" and dealt with based on how severe they are, Miller said. For example, if someone is shooting fireworks at cars, that would get a higher priority than someone just illegally shooting off fireworks, he said.

It's hard to catch people in the act, he said.

For those who just want to watch the sky light up, fireworks displays and other events are planned from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday in Town Square downtown and beginning at 8 p.m. at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood.


Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

Anchorage personal fireworks rules

Where: Allowed only on private property by the owner

When: Between 9:30 p.m. Dec. 31 to 1 a.m. Jan. 1

Where prohibited:

• Within 200 feet of another house

• Within 500 feet of a gas station, library, house of worship, hotel, motel, health care or assisted living facility, school

• Downtown

• Mobile home parks

Cleanup: Must be done within 12 hours

Public fireworks displays

Anchorage

• Downtown

Date: Dec 31

Time: 5 - 8 p.m.

Location: Town Square

More Info

• Bailey's

Date: Dec 31

Time: 7 p.m.

Location: Bailey's Furniture Store

Girdwood

Date: Dec 31

Time: 8 p.m.

Location: Alyeska Resort

More Info

Wasilla Lake

Date: Dec. 31

Time: 8 p.m.

Location: Newcomb Park

Big Lake

Date: Dec. 31

Time: 10 p.m.

Location: Big Lake Recreation Center

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