Tent vendors get cool reception amid fireworks complaints

Tent vendors get cool reception amid fireworks complaints

Fireworks tent vendors, like this one closed up against the rain on Tuesday, have sparked more controversy than usual this year as people notice larger amounts of fireworks in their neighborhoods. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

With the Fourth of July this weekend, a familiar site is popping up in parking lots around the state.

Fireworks are once again for sale from tents on many street corners, but with a surge in complaints this year over backyard fireworks, vendors are facing extra pushback from some local officials.

In North Smithfield, town councilors were divided on whether to issue holiday licenses and allow extended hours to two fireworks vendors located in Slatersville Plaza and outside Park Square Wine and Spirits. The vendors already had permission to set up tents beginning June 19, but were looking to stay open late this Friday and Saturday and sell fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Councilors took up the issue on July 22, narrowly approving the licenses by a 3-2 vote.

Two councilors, Douglas Osier Jr. and Claire O’Hara, voted against the requests. O’Hara said she thought the areas where the tents were located, especially in Park Square, were too heavily traveled, while Osier raised concerns over backyard fireworks, saying he’s already heard several complaints from town residents.

“It’s definitely a quality of life issue,” he said.

The debate comes as many communities are dealing with record numbers of fireworks complaints. Though North Smithfield Police Capt. Stephen Riccitelli said he hasn’t seen a big jump in complaints in town, other places, including Pawtucket, have seen as much as five times the number of fireworks-related calls compared with last year. In Providence, police sent out a dedicated task force last weekend to crack down on neighborhood fireworks.

Even those who voted in favor of the licenses in North Smithfield raised some concerns. The vendors were initially looking to stay open until 11 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, but all councilors agreed that was too late and set the closing time at 9 p.m.

“Especially in a liquor store parking lot,” said Vadenais. “You don’t want to mix the two of them together. It’s just a recipe for something to happen.”

Bartomioli said she’s also seen complaints about fireworks on social media, and the issue is especially bad for those with dogs.

“I think if we can at least keep it to 9 p.m., that would be a safer bet,” she said. “I can’t control what they’re doing after that at home, but not selling them at that hour.”

The problem, according to Vadenais, is that most of the fireworks causing complaints are not the ground version available in Rhode Island, but the aerial kind for sale in New Hampshire and other states. Rhode Island state law bans the sale or use of aerial fireworks except in public displays.

“What they’re selling isn’t really what you’re hearing out there. You can go to New Hampshire and buy those all day, they can’t stop you,” he said.

Councilor Paul Zwolenski said he wanted the town fire marshal to sign off on all fireworks vendors.

In Blackstone, Mass., Police Chief Gregory Gilmore sent out a release Monday reminding residents that fireworks of any type, even sparkler and ground-based ones, are illegal in Massachusetts. Gilmore said he hasn’t seen a significant increase in complaints, but was trying to get ahead of the issue after hearing about problems in larger cities like Boston.

In Woonsocket, residents won’t be seeing any fireworks tents this year after councilors took aim at the mobile vendors last year. Councilor Denise Sierra raised the issue in early 2019 because the tent vendors, she said, took business away from brick-and-mortar store owners who pay property taxes to the city.

“It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good business move, the math doesn’t add up,” she said at the time.

In order to avoid legal challenges from the fireworks industry, councilors avoided banning fireworks tents entirely, instead establishing tight restrictions on where they could set up. But those restrictions, it seems, weren’t tight enough. Last Fourth of July, two vendors were able to set up tents at the former Pizza Hut on Diamond Hill Road and Hill Liquors on Cumberland Hill Road, prompting the council to approve a second version of the ordinance last August.

This year, no fireworks tent vendor permits have been issued, Sierra confirmed last week.

Residents can still buy fireworks at physical store locations in the city.