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Pawleys Island: Town reviews fireworks ban to avoid conflict with state law

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Five years after the state legislature changed the law on fireworks, the town of Pawleys Island has asked its attorney whether its long-standing ban is legal. The move comes a year after Town Council asked police to start issuing more tickets for violations of its fireworks ordinance.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Mayor Bill Otis said. “The council’s intent is to protect the properties from fire.”

The town banned fireworks in 1990 and in 2006 made it illegal to possess fireworks.

But in an opinion on the subject issued in 2011, the state attorney general’s office said, “local governments may not criminalize conduct which is otherwise lawful under state law. At this time, state law generally only prohibits the discharge of fireworks in ‘fireworks prohibited zones.’ ”

If a municipality does restrict fireworks, the opinion says, the ordinance “should be carefully drafted so as to impose nothing more than a civil penalty for violations.”

Pawleys Island makes possession, use or sale of fireworks a misdemeanor with a fine no less than $50 and no greater than $500 or 30 days in jail.

The S.C. Municipal Association recently raised the issue with members, urging them to make sure their ordinances met state law and asking what sort of restrictions they had adopted, said Bill Taylor, field services manager with the association. “The association isn’t offering legal advice, and neither am I, but I’m not sure you can ban it outright,” he said.

Pawleys Island has asked attorney David DuRant to review the state law and local ordinance and come up with a recommendation, Otis said. “There’s a real question in my mind between a ban and a restriction,” he said.

There are 525 dwellings on the island and most have only 20 to 25 feet between them. “Fire caused by fireworks can do lots of damage,” Otis said.

The fireworks prohibited zones allowed by state law have been used at Litchfield by the Sea and the Litchfield Beaches. With approval from County Council, property owners – including condominium associations – can ban fireworks from their property and extend those bans to adjacent public property, such as the beach. While fire is a concern in those areas, residents say litter and noise are also problems.

Those were the issues that drove the city of Gaffney to consider a fireworks ban in 2011, said City Administrator James Taylor. The city council sought the attorney general’s opinion. “We did not think we could ban fireworks based on our reading of that opinion,” Taylor said.

The city instead voted to prohibit shooting fireworks after 11 p.m., with exceptions for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. “We didn’t use fireworks prohibited zones,” Taylor said. “We looked at it, but thought enforcement would be difficult.”

At Litchfield by the Sea, the community association hires off-duty deputies to enforce the zones.

Despite the attorney general’s opinion, Gaffney continues to make violations a misdemeanor punishable by a fine. “We felt that’s not severe enough to be a problem,” Taylor said.

Bill Taylor was the Cheraw city administrator before he went to work for the Municipal Association. He said the city had a fireworks ban, but it was questioned by the fireworks industry.

“The fireworks group is a pretty big lobby in this state,” he added.

“We couldn’t curtail the shooting,” Taylor said. “We did recommend it only be done on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.”

He understands the concerns at Pawleys Island. He owns a second home in Ricefields. “They’re probably getting away with it because there’s no one to challenge it,” Taylor said.

The town did make one exception to its ban. That was on New Year’s Eve in 1999 when a professional display from Pawleys Pier greeted the new millennium. Officials made it clear they didn’t expect another display for a thousand years.

“The great preponderance of property owners are concerned about protecting their property from fire,” Otis said.

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