Lewes’s unsanctioned fireworks were snuffed out last July, but a spirit of cooperation has ensured dazzling things to come
By Jeanne Shook | Photograph by John Hoyt
From the June 2018 issue
Lewes Chief of Police Tom Spell admits that he was “the Grinch” who stole the 2017 Fourth of July fireworks.
For many years, Lewes Beach had been the site of unsanctioned displays that, according to Spell, had “gotten bigger and more potentially dangerous” with each holiday. Last summer’s first official ban on such unauthorized events was set in motion when the Office of the State Fire Marshal urged the city — not for the first time — to take action. Despite a history of non-compliance with regulations governing fireworks, the city had been “very fortunate that we didn’t have any serious injuries,” admits Lewes Mayor Ted Becker.
Delaware is one of only three states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, prohibiting the sale of fireworks.
By law, fireworks displays sanctioned by the state must be professionally conducted by companies with the proper permits and licensing. Over the years, the fire marshal’s office made numerous attempts to curtail the illegal pyrotechnics along Lewes Beach, but no action was ever taken until last June. According to Michael G. Chionchio, the assistant state fire marshal, his office decided to “give it another shot” and initiated a meeting with Spell and Lewes City Manager Ann Marie Townshend.
The newest additions to City Hall, Spell and Townshend invited Chionchio to share his concerns with the City Council at its June meeting. During that session, Becker allowed that “there is an issue of safety and the potential of personal injury or property damage” from unsanctioned fireworks and that he saw an “opportunity to do something” about the issue. His bottom line at the time: “The city will be looking for a way to have city-sanctioned fireworks going forward.”
Townshend acknowledges that because she and Spell were relative newcomers to their jobs — and therefore somewhat removed from the long-standing fireworks debate — their status brought a fresh perspective that helped make a future sanctioned event “doable, so we could have fireworks without breaking the law.”
It was Spell’s public statement on June 22, however, indicating his “intent to enforce the current laws prohibiting all types of fireworks, and, more importantly, educate everyone on the dangers of fireworks” that set off (pun intended) a backlash from some members of the community. The general consensus among those opposing the change was primarily that private fireworks were a time-honored Lewes tradition and that it was too late to reverse course that year since many residents and visitors had already purchased their fireworks. Many residents agreed that something needed to be done — but not until 2018.
To Chionchio, however, “because it’s been done in the past” was a weak argument.
For his part, Spell says he understands traditions “and how important they are to small towns like Lewes,” a sentiment Townshend echoes: “People and families have been here for generations, and change is hard.” But with liability issues being one of her major responsibilities as city manager, she also cautions that “so many things can go wrong” without professional supervision and proper safety measures in place. In the end, Spell’s zero-tolerance policy won out — and proved effective, thanks to a communications outreach urging compliance.
When July 4 passed without major incident, disappointment over the fireworks-free holiday fueled discourse over next steps to avoid a repeat in 2018. In late August, city officials hosted a public meeting on the topic. The discussion included the possible location for a city-approved fireworks display, logistics, costs, and the need to hire a “turn-key operation” with the necessary licensing, permits, and liability insurance to smoothly put on a show.
Among those in attendance was Lewes Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Betsy Reamer, who noted that her organization “gets more phone calls about the Fourth of July fireworks than any other event in Lewes.” From a tourism perspective, she added, a sanctioned display would be “a nice add-on to the other events that bring people into town.”
For local builder Russ Palmer, who also attended the August meeting, it was more personal. His was one of many Lewes families for whom the fireworks were an annual tradition; he called last year’s ban “very disappointing.” Committed to restoring the holiday event, Palmer immediately began canvassing his friends and business associates, and at a September City Council meeting he said he’d secured pledges from 38 individuals and businesses to financially support the initiative.
With the council’s endorsement, a public-private partnership was formed — appropriately named Go Fourth! — to raise funds and plan the 2018 event. Reamer and Becker, who are co-chairing the effort, organized a committee composed of representatives from both the public and private sectors. Palmer was named the group’s first honorary chairman, assigned the task of helping to raise $55,000 for the inaugural celebration.
Go Fourth! has contracted with Schaefer Fireworks of Ronks, Pa., to produce the 20-minute pyrotechnic display, which will be launched from an offshore barge. Anchored 500 feet off Lewes Beach, the barge will increase the viewing area — and safety factor — for those watching along the shoreline. “Because Lewes Beach is narrow and crescent-shaped, the barge will allow optimal viewing,” says Reamer. The placement of the launch area also precludes the need to close the beach ahead of time, allowing beachgoers to enjoy the day and remain for the show, scheduled to start lighting up the sky at 9 p.m. (“oohs and aahs” to follow).
Go Fourth! organizers envision a fireworks tradition that becomes an integral part of the long-standing Fourth of July festivities already in place. From the annual old-fashioned children’s games on Second Street in downtown Lewes to the boat parade on the Lewes-and-Rehoboth Canal, followed by the informal and quirky Doo-Dah Parade, the fireworks will bring the day’s events to a rousing grand finale — safely, professionally and legally.
Light the Sky!
Lewes’s first officially sanctioned Independence Day fireworks display will take place on July 4 at 9 p.m. The rain date is July 5. For more information, or to make a donation, visit gofourthlewes.org or call Terri Colegrove at 644-0107. All donations are processed through the Greater Lewes Foundation and are tax-deductible.
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