Fires for ‘entertainment’ allowed, but ordinance is vague
On Nov. 3, Marathon voters will decide on an “outdoor burning” law. The Marathon City Council has already voted it down, but the city charter’s rules say it must go before the voters as a referendum ballot question.
Marathon resident Karen Farley-Wilkinson is behind the push to ban certain types of outdoor fires. She collected more than 700 signatures, verified by the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections.
“It’s pretty straight forward,” Farley-Wilkinson said. “Don’t burn your yard waste. Put it out in front of your house in a can and, like magic, it disappears. You don’t have to burn that and put smoke and ashes and ember on other people’s homes and businesses.”
The council voted the proposed ordinance down on the grounds that it was too vague and difficult to enforce. City Attorney David Migut said the proposed law allows burning for “entertainment” does not define the term. It also prohibits burning “any waste material.” Migut said, “This a vague term that is not limited to yard waste, trash, tires or any other material that isn’t needed and thus waste.”
Marathon Vice Mayor Mark Senmartin said the ambiguities could be trouble for otherwise law-abiding citizens.
“If I pick up a twig from my yard and put it in the fire, I am in violation of the proposed ordinance,” Senmartin said. “And, unfortunately, there is no enforcement for this violation. So we end up with another law on the books that is unenforceable. So why have it?”
The way the proposed law is written, the onus may fall on the property owner. Migut said laws typically prohibit people from taking an action, but this law prohibits the fire itself. “Instead of prohibiting the actions of the individual, it would attach to the property owner, and thus is logically within the domain of code compliance,” Migut wrote in a legal opinion. In a town with many vacation rentals, it may be difficult to pinpoint whether a property owner or renter is responsible for the fire.
Farley-Wilkinson said the law would not be hard to enforce.
“The fire department shows up and tells them to put it out. That’s how it’s done in other places, like Key Largo,” she said. “Often times, when you pass an ordinance with a fine attached, people won’t do those things anymore. Which is the idea: don’t do it. It’s a deterrent.”
State law allows for residents to burn yard waste under certain conditions, provided there are no county or municipal laws that prohibit it. For example, the fire must be 25 feet away from the home, 50 feet from a paved road and 150 feet from occupied dwellings, and smoke cannot be a nuisance.
Marathon Fire Chief John Johnson said Marathon Fire Rescue has been responded to 12 calls for outdoor fires in almost eight months. Eight were “rubbish” fires and four were “trash” fires.
Jeffery “Tip” Tipsword said he has fires in the evening during the cooler months, weather permitting. He lives on a wooded hammock lot and culls it periodically to keep the hammock open and fire hazard down.
“All of the leaves and small branches are put into barrels and are picked up weekly by Marathon Garbage Service,” Tipsword said. “The larger branches and the trunks are cut to fire place/fire ring size and stacked aside to dry. This provides us with dry firewood to take when we go camping or have a fire at home.”
Tipsword said he grew up where autumn leaves were regularly burned.
“I feel that the amount of smoke produced could be what has prompted this issue to be brought forth. I feel the bigger concern is the burning of construction debris (and related toxins) which should be addressed …”
Farley-Wilkinson said the proposed law’s main focus is health and safety.
“In talking to people, I learned that the smoke is a big part of the problem. People with lung and COPD issues have a hard time breathing,” she said.
If voters pass the law, it cannot be repealed or changed for three years, or one election cycle.
OFFICIAL BALLOT MUNICIPAL ELECTION
NOVEMBER 3, 2015
MARATHON CITY COUNCIL
(Vote for no more than Two)
CITIZEN INITIATIVE PETITION PROHIBITING OUTDOOR BURNING ON RESIDENTIAL LOTS
Should the City of Marathon prohibit open burning, outdoor burning, and refuse burning on residential lots in the City of Marathon by ordinance, subject to certain exemptions listed in such ordinance or expressly authorized by Florida law, and with enforcement by any method authorized by law?