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Rohnert Park considers firework restrictions

By: Joshua Farestveit-Moore
April 26, 2019

The Rohnert Park City Council directed staff Tues. to explore the possibility of shrinking the five-day window before Independence Day citizens are allowed to launch fireworks down to three. 

The direction was born from an ongoing effort to grant the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department more tools in the fight against illegal fireworks. The public met Council’s decision with significant protest. Many nonprofit organizations make the bulk of their yearly funding through the sale of fireworks, and the limitation on the number of days citizens can launch them threatens their bottom line. 

Yet the decision smacked more of compromise. At least one member of the Rohnert Park City Council sought to see fireworks outright banned. 

“I’ve voted against the sale of fireworks every year for the last 23 years,” Council member Jake Mackenzie said. “Rohnert Park is an attractive nuisance around Sonoma County. There’s a reason why the Target and Walmart parking lots turn into a war-zone each [Fourth of July].” 

Fireworks have had a long sordid history within Rohnert Park, and with the Tubbs Fire back in 2017 still fresh in the county’s minds, public opinion has not been kind. Only four cities within Sonoma County still allow the sale of fireworks. Those cities are Cloverdale, Petaluma, Sebastopol, and of course, Rohnert Park. Firework outlets are banned pretty much everywhere else. 

This is important because as the number of cities that allow firework sales dwindle, more and more customers are flocking to Rohnert Park. From 2012 to 2017 the total sale of fireworks within the city leapt from $256 thousand a year to $339 thousand; though in 2018 that number dropped back down to $251 thousand, which the city speculates was due to the backlash from the Tubbs Fire. 

That’s quite a bit of money to leave on the table, and it’s not just entrepreneurs that would suffer from its loss. Eighteen non-profit organizations fundraise by selling fireworks. Their numbers include the Tech High Booster Club, the Rotary Club and the Calvary Life Church just to name a few. Also in that list is Rancho’s Sober Grad party. According to its firework coordinator, Ed Clites, losing that funding would mean the safe and sober graduation would have to cut service. “It’s their last hurrah before real adulthood and we might have to charge more or scale back our activities,” Clites said. “I do believe that if we did away with safe and sane fireworks then more people would turn to illegal fireworks. It’s about that community, familial experience that people love on Fourth of July.”

Yet that money doesn’t come free. Every Independence Day the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department schedules 33 percent more fire staff to combat the expected spike in service calls. And there are a lot of calls. In 2018 there were eight dumpster fires on Independence Day alone, and, year after year, Rohnert Park has the highest number of firework related calls in the county. 

Enforcement can become a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, according to Chief of Rohnert Park Public Safety Tim Mattos. 

“It’s the one day that I never look forward to. I haven’t had a Fourth of July in 29 years—and that’s ok, but I always know that it’s going to run from seven in the morning to three in the morning. We have to be there all night long,” Mattos said. “It’s unfortunate because the people that were here tonight were not the problem. If this was all your community then you wouldn’t need us out there on the Fourth of July.” 

A narrow majority of the council supported the proposed Independence Day scale-back. They included Pam Stafford, Jake Mackenzie and Gina Belforte. 

By a unanimous vote, council also directed staff to draw up an ordinance that shifts responsibility for firework violation from the launcher to the homeowner. If someone shoots off a roman candle, for instance, then police don’t need to find who exactly lit the fuse. They can just find the name on the deed. 

Both directions now move on to staff. They’ll be translated into legalese and placed on an upcoming agenda.