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Fireworks flap divides coastal town in Northern California

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Two years ago, Sid Waterman gazed up with satisfaction at this town's first Independence Day fireworks. He knew how hard he and a few other citizens had worked to bring such a display of civic pride to this isolated Mendocino County coastal community.

"Every time the crowd roared," said the racing-car parts manufacturer, "my chest puffed up with pride."

A mile down shore, on a small rocky island, some nesting seabirds reacted differently, according to local birders who soon made their feelings known.

The birds, they said, flew about in disarray, uncharacteristically abandoning their nests after dark and leaving their chicks vulnerable to predators.

"They were exploding their fireworks in the middle of nesting season," bird enthusiast Diane Hichwa said of Waterman's fireworks committee. "It was hardly patriotic and absolutely inappropriate."

This summer, Gualala will have no Fourth of July fireworks.

It won't be alone. With fires in the tinder-dry state burning through more than 400,000 acres in recent weeks, communities around the state are canceling their plans, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged them to do.

In Gualala (pronounced way-LA-la), the circumstances are different.

After the 2006 fireworks, environmentalists asked the California Coastal Commission to intervene in any plans for future displays in this unincorporated village about 160 miles north of San Francisco on grounds that fireworks frighten pets and cause air pollution. Local bird groups conducted a study last year that suggested harm to the birds.

In June, the commission banned the fireworks display. Then a Superior Court judge refused to stay the commission's ruling.

The flap over fireworks has prompted cross words between neighbors and threats of business boycotts. Meanwhile, the Gualala Festivals Committee, which organized the fireworks, has sued the commission.

Lawyers for a watchdog group that filed the suit say the commission's decision to ban fireworks has less to do with nesting birds than with power.

"Independence Day celebrates freedom from arbitrary, overreaching government power," said Graham Owen, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. "In this case, the Coastal Commission is acting like the Grinch that stole the Fourth of July."

Residents are also blaming each other for the standoff. "This is a divided town," said Marshall Sayegh, a festivals committee spokesman. "People don't like to admit that but it's the truth."

Fireworks proponents point to the Sea Ranch, a wealthy, private community nearby in Sonoma County that relies on Gualala for most services. The bird island lies just offshore from the Sea Ranch, and residents say many of the complaints came from there.

Gualala's two supermarkets removed fireworks donations jars after some customers -- many of them residents of the Sea Ranch -- threatened a boycott, Waterman said. At a local pharmacy, employees stopped wearing buttons advertising the Independence Day celebration when shoppers balked.

"There are a lot of wealthy people around here with way too much time on their hands," said Michael Thomas, who owns a diner in town. "This thing has made enemies out of friends. It's terrible."

The study monitoring the bird population on the island last year found that a larger than usual number of nests were abandoned around the time of the 2007 fireworks show, said Hichwa, the birder. "Do private individuals have the right to diminish the quality of public lands?" she asked.

Sayegh, the festival committee spokesman, said critics "are acting like we're setting off fireworks right over a rookery. The island is a mile away. You can't even see it from the launch site."

In a statement, John Fox, community manager for the Sea Ranch, said he supported the Coastal Commission ruling. "The birds couldn't change their nesting habits," and the committee "wouldn't change the timing of its patriotic display," he wrote.

Residents of the Sea Ranch aren't the only critics of the fireworks show. Some Gualala residents and business owners say the tensions partly come from the fact that the self-appointed festivals committee failed to consult others when it planned the celebration.

"Who named these people the town fathers?" asked Jeremy Crockett, who co-owns a bookstore in town.

At the core of the discord is Gualala's isolation and unincorporated status, some say. Although Gualala itself has about 600 residents, the population rises to 3,000 when outlying homes are included.

"There's no city government, and we're two hours away from the county seat, about as far as we can get," said J. Stephen McLaughlin, editor and publisher of the weekly Independent Coast Observer. "That makes it easy for people to say, 'I speak for the town.' A lot of people feel they don't have any say about what goes on."

Waterman admits no one appointed him to organize the town's festivities but says he and others only wanted to do what was best for Gualala.

"We're just trying to get people to come here," he said. "We're a small, isolated town. With gas prices as they are, who's going to come all the way to Gualala?"

A few years back, Waterman, Sayegh and a few other volunteers staged a truck parade that drew several hundred spectators. Another year the same group erected a 40-foot Christmas tree. In 2005, the group held a July 4 Patriot Day, for which residents dressed in Revolutionary War-era garb. Sayegh was Benjamin Franklin and handed out miniature flags to children.

The next year they secured a Fire Department permit for a 15-minute fireworks display. The event drew 3,000 people. "There's not a lot of things for kids to do here," said Jack Chladek, who owns the local pharmacy and supports the fireworks show. "People look forward to these events."

Before the 2007 fireworks show, the Coastal Commission sent a letter to the committee saying that it needed a development permit. The committee consulted a local attorney and decided to stage the show without one.

With so many fireworks displays on the California coast, Waterman asked, why were officials picking on them?

"We decided not to get the permit," he said. "I didn't want to set a precedent and have other towns point the finger at me for starting something."

State officials remain frustrated.

"We have done everything we could to avoid this," Nancy Cave, the commission's enforcement supervisor in Northern California, said of the decision to stop the event. "We gave them ample time to submit a permit application. We tried to talk to them. But nothing."

The Gualala fireworks committee has rejected suggestions to stage a laser light show instead of fireworks or reschedule the fireworks for Labor Day or New Year's, when the birds won't be nesting.

The group says it hopes to win in court in time for next year's show.

"No matter what," Waterman said, "I'll be proud of those fireworks shows until I'm mowing the grass from the roots side."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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