PRINCETON — Fireworks are a big part of the Fourth of July, but for many Mercer County residents, the season means enduring constant explosions before and after the holiday, and wondering what can be done to bring the constant noise under control.
In 2019, the Mercer County Commission enacted an ordinance limiting the times when fireworks can be used. Under the ordinance, they can be used during the following periods:
• July 4 from 9 p.m. to 11:59 p.m and on July 5 from 12:00 a.m. until 12:30 a.m.
• June 24 to July 7 (10 days prior and three days after Independence Day) between the hours of 9 p.m. to 11:59 p.m.
The cities of Princeton and Bluefield have their own fireworks ordinances.
Despite the county ordinance, residents complain that they keep hearing fireworks at all hours long after the Fourth of July is over. During the June 8 meeting of the Mercer County Commission, Hank Burnley, who is president of the Sunny Meadows Maintenance Association near Princeton, said his community has repeatedly had fireworks issues.
“Our property butts up against the Pepperidge Apartments and we’ve had problems last year and the year before last with fireworks,” Burnley said. “It sounded like that we were in the Vietnam jungle, and my question is how do you enforce the ordinance?”
Commissioner Greg Puckett said that the county currently relies on the sheriff to enforce the ordinance. Puckett added that he understood it could be done through public nuisance and disruption of the peace laws.
Former Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler told the county commission that a judicial court presided over by the three county commissioners could hear those issues involving fireworks. County Administrator Vicky Reed sent the ordinance to the new prosecutor, Brian Cochran, to get clarification, Puckett said, adding that he has had many complaints from other citizens.
“He has not responded yet. We will get back to that,” Puckett said. “You are not alone, Mr. Burnley. I’ve been getting calls left and right. I had calls and emails, texts (Monday), and as the Fourth of July gets closer, it’s getting a lot worse. We did put the ordinance in play hopefully to control this, but we have to get clarification from Prosecuting Attorney Cochran.”
Burnley said that he had spoken with the West Virginia Fire Commission, West Virginia State Fire Marshal and Sheriff Tommy Bailey and “he said they will not and they cannot respond to calls.”
“We would have a difference of opinion on that,” Puckett said.
“That’s fine, but a difference of opinion doesn’t send a policeman,” Burnley said.
Puckett said he had spoken with Magistrate Mike Flanigan, and was told that fireworks cases could not be heard in magistrate court.
Puckett added that he had not had an opportunity to speak with the county’s other magistrates, but “I don’t understand why they can’t enforce a law that’s already on the books. It’s a nuisance law as well as disturbance of the peace is commonly done, but we are trying to get clarification.”
“But you guys made this ordinance, and this ordinance is not worth the paper it is rewritten on,” Burnley said.
“Neither is the noise ordinance,” Puckett replied. “Neither one of them are, and until we can have some additional teeth to have the accountability, that has to come from the sheriff and/ or give us the privilege and/or make sure the magistrates can handle it. That’s the only way that it can happen. And until those offices are willing to enforce an ordinance that we created, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. That’s true.”
Puckett told Burnley that people across the county keep having fireworks problems.
“You’re not alone,” Puckett said. “If I were you, I would get very vocal on it. Put it on our Facebook page, put it on my page and show your disapproval because if you have more community support on this issue, you’ll have greater opportunity for change.”
Burnley asked whether he should call the sheriff’s department in late June if the problem continues. County Commission President Gene Buckner said that he would call the department, adding that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The sheriff is an elected official, however, and the commission cannot force him to do anything.
Puckett told Burnley that he would speak with the county’s magistrates again and speak with Prosecutor Brian Cochran about clarifying what can be done to enforce the ordinance, and would contact him within the next seven days.
Sheriff Tommy Bailey, who did not attend the county commission’s meeting, said later that his department could not enforce a county ordinance, and the magistrates could not hear the complaints.
“The county does not have a court system that’s going to hear it,” Bailey said. “The county commission would have to set up their own court to hear the county ordinances.”
Bailey compared the situation to a city court, which can hear only cases involving city ordinances.
“The cities have their ordinances, they have their own court systems,” he said. “That’s what we would have to do.”
— Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org