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Fireworks spark concern

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Several Lantana residents are determined to put an end to the unsafe use of fireworks after pyrotechnics sparked grass fires near homes on New Year’s Eve and scorched more than an acre of the golf course.

Four-year resident Jim Lieber, Crime Watch coordinator Bill Featherstone and others are reaching out to the Lantana Community Association and local government officials for help.

“Let’s have legislation that allows counties to ban fireworks in densely populated areas,” said Featherstone, a nine-year resident who has made media appearances over the past few years, asking people to be responsible after several incidents in which fireworks started fires.

“Frankly, we need to educate people, but we need to discourage them,” he said. “We’ve had fires. I want people to think, ‘just because I can, should I?’ It takes a ban — that’s why we have laws. We have laws to protect people, because some people just aren’t smart enough.”

Fireworks are allowed in Lantana but only on private property with permission from the landowner.

Two Lantana residents were cited for reckless damage and destruction by Denton County authorities after the fires were out. But some don’t think that’s enough.

For Lieber, who battled some of the blazes with a garden hose, the final straw was seeing a friend relive the fireworks-related death of her husband two years ago as her 10-year-old son cried in his living room.

“Our closest friend was a decorated Vietnam veteran and a Marine. He had two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star … he had a fireworks accident on New Years Eve 2009, and he died four months later,” Lieber said. His friend’s wife and son witnessed the accident.

“We’re sitting here, it’s midnight, and we hear some fireworks go off out in the street, and all of the sudden there’s an incredible boom, and the entire property lit up,” he said.

Rushing to put out fires in and around his lawn with a garden hose, Lieber had to contend with gusty winds from an incoming cold front that were pushing the flames.

After the ordeal, he came back inside to find his friend’s son “absolutely hysterical.”

“He had just relived two years ago,” Lieber said. “That’s why I’m (angry).”

Lieber is determined to find a way to enact a ban. “Don’t you dare tell me there’s no way to ban this stuff; there is, we’re in a congested area.”

But it may take some doing. As Lantana is unincorporated, no governmental entity appears to exist that has the authority to enact a fireworks ban. Such bans are typically enacted by municipalities; of the communities surrounding Lantana, Bartonville is the only one which hasn’t banned fireworks.

Featherstone said the crux of the issue is population density.

“Out in Bartonville you see a lot of one-acre lots,” Featherstone said. “But we are so close together.”

Jody Gonzalez, Denton County Chief Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator, said that neither the county nor the fresh water supply districts have the authority to ban things like fireworks.

“We are only authorized to perform functions that are explicitly authorized in legislation,” he said.
“Unlike a municipality, which has ordinance-making powers.”

“This isn’t a Denton County thing,” Gonzalez said of the county’s inability to enact a fireworks ban. “There are 253 counties in the state of Texas that are dealing with this problem.”

There are 254 counties in Texas; only Zapata, a far-south county bordering Mexico with no incorporated territory, has ordinance-making powers, which were granted by the State Legislature in 2003.

Gonzalez said most counties are allowed to enact only temporary bans on the use and sale of fireworks under extreme drought conditions, and that it’s easier to enact a temporary burn-ban than a fireworks ban. He added that none of the fireworks used by the residents who were cited were illegal.

Gonzalez said he also spoke in support of legislation several years ago that would allow densely populated, unincorporated communities to hold local votes on the question of a fireworks ban. But it seems to be an unpopular idea with many Texans.

Featherstone said his efforts have been met with staunch resistance, with some even calling him unpatriotic. He visited Austin in 2008 to address the Committee on County Affairs and said he was the sole voice for allowing counties to ban fireworks in densely populated areas.

“I was in a room with maybe 60 people and everyone — band boosters, people from churches — thought it was fine to sell fireworks,” he said, adding that fireworks retailers are particularly tenacious about resisting bans.

Lieber said that he plans to join Featherstone in Austin when the legislature is in session next year.

“Even though it’s a fresh water supply district, someone should have the authority to keep people from burning my house down,” he said.

It appears that at least a short-term solution is in the works, thanks to the Lantana Community Association.

The homeowner’s association board will take action this month by way of a new amendment that prohibits fireworks in Lantana, punishable by a fine.

“Lantana is a great place to live, but it is a work in progress and there are just some holes in the system that have to be fixed,” said Mark Wagner, a LCA board member.

“We are going to do everything we can do from an HOA standpoint.”

Wagner said enforcement of the new rule will be handled by an education campaign with letters to residents, signage in the neighborhood and off-duty sheriff’s deputies patrolling the community on July 4th and New Year’s Eve.

“I applaud the HOA for jumping in and taking on this issue, and I hope the new rule deters irresponsible and dangerous behavior,” said Featherstone.

“The big picture that our lawmakers in Austin need to see is that the public safety of residents living in fresh water supply districts has to be addressed, and the prohibition of fireworks is a piece of that puzzle,” he said.

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