On a quiet weekday night around 9:30 p.m., the sky above a little Machias subdivision tucked behind the Hannaford grocery store can suddenly become illuminated in a shower of pink and white sparks followed by a tremendous boom.
But while one might enjoy the brilliant show of color in the sky, it can also be the source of irritation for others.
Welcome to the wild, wild east of Washington County, where legal fireworks displays have some small communities up in arms and local governments struggling to deal with the situation.
A law that took effect in 2012 allows displays of consumer fireworks on one’s own property — or on other property if the owner consents — from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. The hours are extended until 12:30 a.m. the following day for July Fourth, New Year’s Eve, and the weekends immediately before and after those two dates.
The topic came to a head Sept. 12, when Jean DeVeber complained to Lubec’s Board of Selectmen about fireworks displays.
“Public safety is a huge issue here,” she told the board.
Sheriff Donnie Smith, who lives in Lubec and was present at the board meeting, also expressed his concern .
“It’s not the fireworks. It’s the person with the fireworks,” he told the selectmen.
Fireworks displays generate regular complaints to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, according to Smith, particularly on weekends. He singled out Machias, which contains a store that sells fireworks, along with East Machias, Machiasport and Wesley.
Those complaints require a response from his short list of deputies or the couple of state troopers assigned to Washington County.
“It’s certainly a nuisance to law enforcement, [and] it costs us a fortune,” he said.
He suggested that people urge legislators “to put some teeth in the law,” so it can be enforced effectively by sheriff’s deputies and state police.
The panel directed Town Administrator John Sutherland to explore the feasibility of an ordinance to regulate fireworks displays, while suggesting a possible solution would be to require a permit to allow town officials some control.
The controversy has generated a considerable number of letters and emails to the board from Lubec residents, according to DeVeber.
There have also been complaints in an area of Eastport, according to Mary Repole, chairman of the City Council.
“The biggest problem,” she said, “is catching people.”
The Eastport council is also considering adopting an ordinance to deal with the fireworks and is consulting with the city manager, police chief and fire chief, said Repole.
Eastport has many wood buildings, she noted, and in areas where they are closer together, the fire hazard associated with fireworks displays is “more dangerous,” she said.
But the issue is not as simple as passing a town ordinance or requiring a local permit, either, particularly for small communities, many of which — like Lubec — do not have a police force. It may not even be the solution for those — like Eastport — that do have police officers.
For those communities without a police force, as Smith told the Lubec officials, his office is not empowered to enforce local ordinances. He also said the district attorney’s office will not prosecute them.
“It’s a source of frequent tension,” First Assistant District Attorney Paul Cavanaugh acknowledged last week.
The district attorney’s office does not prosecute town ordinances, noted Cavanaugh, and violations of a town ordinance would be handled by a town attorney.
Cavanaugh said that while Maine’s disorderly conduct law addresses noisy behavior, the state’s law governing fireworks displays would take precedence. In other words, if a fireworks display is legal under the permitting state law, it is unlikely the person could be successfully prosecuted for disorderly conduct, he indicated.
In fact, no disorderly conduct cases over fireworks displays have been brought to his office, said Cavanaugh.
When Smith addressed Lubec’s Board of Selectmen, he lambasted the Legislature — and the county’s legislative delegation — for changing the state law governing fireworks displays. The lawmakers showed little foresight on the issue, he suggested.
“Now we’re left to deal with it,” the sheriff said.
None of Washington County’s lawmakers asked him about the potential impact of liberalizing the fireworks law and the effect on local law enforcement, said Smith.
“That gives you some idea of how concerned they were for me or you,” he said.
“I have very little faith in this county delegation,” he said. “No faith, actually.”
Rep. Katherine Cassidy, D-Lubec, acknowledged that fireworks displays are a problem for the tiny community.
“We’ve realized that small towns such as Lubec haven’t figured out the means for ensuring public safety, in this respect,” added Cassidy, who skirted the question of whether the state fireworks law should be tightened.
Lubec may need to hire a policeman or form a police department with other small communities, like Whiting and Cutler, suggested Cassidy, who did not directly respond to the criticism leveled by Smith.
Republican Sen. David Burns, who lives in Whiting, said he, too, has received complaints about fireworks displays. He also added that he gets favorable comments from people who support the current law.
He pointed out that towns can adopt ordinances to ban fireworks or regulate them.
When informed that Smith’s office does not enforce local ordinances, and the district attorney’s office does not prosecute them, Burns said, “I guess I would have to look into that further … As far as enforcement … I don’t know.”
Burns declined to comment on Smith’s criticism of the county’s legislative delegation.