CHATHAM — Despite the environmental harm they cause, helium balloons will remain a colorful part of downtown band concerts, at least for one more summer.
Selectmen Tuesday approved their sale at next year's concerts at Kate Gould Park, but several board members said they might be open to considering a town-wide balloon ban in the future.
Downtown property owner Suzanna Nickerson said that helium balloons, like the ones sold at concerts as part of the St. Martin's Masonic Lodge fundraiser, pose a hazard to wildlife when they are released and land in the ocean.
“They mimic jellyfish and may be eaten by wildlife,” and their strings pose an entanglement hazard, she said. She praised the Masons for using biodegradable latex balloons with cotton string, and for working with the band to educate concertgoers about the dangers of releasing the balloons.
“I applaud the effort. But it leaves the same danger to wildlife,” she said. The town has adopted a ban on single-use plastic bags, and that effort has been successful, Nickerson noted. “I believe balloons are far worse,” she said. She showed a large tote filled with discarded balloons and ribbons, all collected from Chatham beaches over the summer.
Chatham Band Manager Anita Harris said she doesn't disagree with the need to protect the planet, but said the town should give the same attention to protecting traditions that bring happiness to residents and visitors. In addition to the music, band concerts are a “feast for the eyes,” with the town's picturesque bandstand, musicians in red uniforms, “and of course, the balloons. It's iconic,” she said. A painting hanging in the town offices, created in the 1950s, shows the balloons on band concert night. Children today still get the same joy from balloons, and this kind of simple fun is something that “seems in short supply these days.”
Selectman Amanda Love said the board cannot in good faith prohibit the sale of balloons at band concerts without doing so at other events or at stores.
“I believe the Masons have been working hard to tie them to the kids' wrists so they don't go anywhere,” Love added.
A commercial fisherman, board member Shareen Davis said she has seen evidence of marine mammals and other animals caught in ribbon and other pollution. “We have a lot of plastic in our seafood column,” and people end up ingesting that plastic, she said. She said the towns of Nantucket and Provincetown have already adopted balloon bans, and Chatham should follow suit.
“I'm pretty conflicted on this one,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. While the environmental risks are real, “we allow balloons everywhere else in town,”he said. Dykens said he favors granting the license for a year to allow for more study.
Resident Norma Avellar was one of the founders of the Chatham chapter of American Field Service, which sold the balloons for years to pay for scholarships and student exchanges. When people let the balloons go in those days, “it was wonderful to see them. But we didn't know any better,” she said. Now, the environmental harm from balloons is clear, and the practice should be stopped. Several years ago, selectmen supported banning smoking at town beaches after students showed them a large jar of cigarette butts collected at one local beach. Faced with that evidence, selectmen didn't propose to allow smoking for another year to study the problem, she noted.
There is evidence that the Masons' educational outreach is working, said John Hallgren, who attends most concerts. He's seen more and more balloons being taken home after concerts, and some being popped at the end. He said he hopes the education continues “so we can continue this decades-long tradition.”
Resident Frank Messina acknowledged the emotional draw of balloons, but said it is time for the town to take some action. He proposed allowing the band to put up its own display of colorful balloons, but banning their sale to families.
In the end, the majority of board members said it would be unfair to prohibit sales by the Masonic lodge when a town-wide ban is what should be debated. Dykens said he favors having the board hold a future discussion on a town-wide ban on helium balloon sales, and said he would welcome such a ban.
With Selectman Dean Nicastro absent and with Davis dissenting, the board voted 3-1 to allow balloon sales to continue next summer, with a review of the practice to be held after that time.