Fireworks laws dim do-it-yourself Md. holiday blasts Some call regulations contrary to the spirit of Independence Day

July 04, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

GLEN ROCK, Pa. -- In the middle of a cornfield near this tiny town about 40 miles north of Baltimore, a half-dozen small structures with no exterior markings hide an explosive treasure: the fireworks for one-third of Maryland's Fourth of July shows.

As Marylanders spend their weekend gazing skyward, they might consider this: Every piece of fireworks that is legally exploded overhead has spent the past few weeks out of state, usually in Pennsylvania. Why? The answer lies neither in transportation routes nor in the perceived tax advantages of the Keystone State, but in Maryland law.

Maryland prohibits the overnight storage of display fireworks within its borders -- just one of several obscure rules that make the Free State anything but when it comes to Independence Day.

"It's crazy," says Paige Reed, an owner of Fireworks Productions Inc. The 9-year-old company is based in Cecil County but maintains the Pennsylvania facility to comply with the law. "We would prefer to store in our home state. But that's the way it is. We do shows in six states, and Maryland is the most difficult because so many regulations are involved."

To be sure, the myriad of measures governing fireworks in Maryland does bring important benefits.

Fire insurance companies say the state is among the safest places on July 4. State officials say the storage ban has cut theft of fireworks and illegal sales. The state fire marshal, who enforces the laws, boasts that there have been no reported injuries from fireworks during the past two Independence Days.

But there is a backlash. Americans of all stripes -- boaters to barbecue enthusiasts to the organizers of some of the state's 203 licensed fireworks shows--complain that the Maryland laws contradict the spirit of the holiday.

"It's the small towns and camps that suffer, because they've got so many regulations in your state, it pushes up the cost of putting on a show," says George R. Zambelli Sr., owner of Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, the Pennsylvania company that produces the Inner Harbor show and dozens more around the state. "Laws like Maryland's don't belong in this country. What's more American than fireworks?"

"It's part of the pain of putting on a show," says Bud Williams, a retired Baltimore County firefighter who helps organize the Loch Raven-area fireworks display. "There are so many things to do and rules to follow. I feel like a chicken with my head cut off."

In Maryland, 30 years of lawmaking has turned the simple pleasure of a backyard fireworks display into an outdated rite known only to scofflaws and a few law-abiding citizens old enough to have seen Brooks Robinson play.

Public displays attract more

In parts of the state, do-it-yourselfers can still use a few kinds of sparklers -- "Snap-N-Pops," "Black Cobra Snakes" and "Party Poppers" -- that are locally made and sold. But three of the most populous localities -- Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties -- have banned the use and possession of all fireworks.

As a result, more Marylanders are attending public displays, from the big show on the water in Annapolis to the small Potomac Fish and Game Club display in a meadow next to its clubhouse in Williamsport. But the strict regulations have made shows increasingly costly and complicated.

Youth camps drop tradition

Most of the state's boys and girls camps, hotbeds of summer fireworks a generation ago, have stopped putting on shows (American Camping Association officials say that none of the 40 accredited camps in Maryland has fireworks shows). Organizers the 33-year-old Loch Raven show say that new construction close to the launch site could force them to relocate next year.

That could lure even more people to the Inner Harbor display, which brings so many boats into the narrow waterway that Steve Phillips, a U.S. Coast Guard specialist, calls the Fourth "the most dangerous day of the year for boating." That is in spite of Coast Guard regulations that prohibit traffic in shipping lanes and within 1,000 feet of the barge from which the fireworks are shot.

"I love the harbor, but I stay away from there on the Fourth," says Paul Hickox, who owns three boats and works for a local boating retailer. "There are so many boats, they create waves that can knock you over."

Sponsors struggle with laws

Towns and nonprofit groups that sponsor fireworks shows for the first time are similarly bowled over by a maze of well-intentioned laws.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is known for inspecting fireworks companies the week before the Fourth of July. The Federal Aviation Administration asks for notice of any show that might appear in flight paths. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires training for drivers to move fireworks, and applies such rigorous restrictions that many trucking companies and railroads refuse to handle the shells used in public displays.

Laws carry hidden costs

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