Balloon Ban To Go To Town Meeting; Plug Pulled On Busking Bylaw

By: Tim Wood

Balloons for sale at last year's July 4 parade in Chatham. The St. Martin's Masonic Lodge will no longer be selling balloons at the parade or Friday night band concerts, following the town's vote in May to ban the sale of balloons. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Selectmen agreed Tuesday that a proposed bylaw that bans balloons should go before voters at the spring town meeting, but they sent the measure back to town counsel for some wordsmithing to clarify that the prohibition would not apply to balloons at birthday parties, weddings and other private functions.

The board also decided to pull the plug on a bylaw governing street performers and buskers, saying the proposed measure was overly complicated and they heard no outcry demanding that the activity be regulated.

“It's getting far too complicated,” said Chairman of Selectmen Cory Metters said of the measure.

As drafted, the general bylaw would prohibit the sale, use and distribution of any type of balloon inflated with lighter-than-air gas such as helium. But it doesn't differentiate between balloons sold at Friday night band concerts – the genesis of the move to ban balloon sales – or the Fourth of July parade and the use of balloons by private individuals or institutions.

During Tuesday night's public hearing, resident Elaine Gibbs asked if she bought balloons for a birthday party at Stop and Shop in East Harwich and brought them into Chatham, could she be stopped by police and fined? Under the proposed bylaw, technically she could, Metters grudgingly acknowledged.

“I think this is carrying it a little too far,” Gibbs said.

Board members agreed. It's unclear if, under the bylaw, a Chatham business can sell balloons to private individuals or if balloons could be used at a private function at Chatham Bars Inn or Liberty Commons Nursing Home.

“I can see businesses really scratching their heads about this one,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens.

The bylaw was a response to concern from some residents that balloons released at Chatham Band concerts end up in the marine environment, causing pollution and endangering wildlife. Shareen Davis, who has worked in the commercial fishing industry, said she can attest to the fact that balloons are found in the water “everywhere.” She supported bringing the bylaw to the May 14 annual town meeting, where it can be passed by a simple majority vote.

“I think it's an important debate and discussion the town should have on the impact of plastics in our environment,” she said.

The bylaw, which goes into effect Sept. 15, not only bans the sale of balloons, it prohibits anyone from “knowingly” releasing balloons, and empowers the police to enforce the measure with a noncriminal citation. A written warning would be issued for a first offense, followed by $25 for a second offense and $100 for a third offense.

Susanna Nickerson said the bylaw will help make the town's beaches and waterways cleaner and wildlife safer.

Chatham Band President Sally Davol agreed that plastics in the environment is an important issue, but said balloons at the Friday night concerts are not the problem. Concertgoers are urged not to release the balloons, and members of the Masonic Lodge, who raise money for local charities through the balloon sales, fasten them to the wrists of children with cotton string. The band, she said, is being used as a scapegoat for a far larger issue.

“The Chatham Band feels a bit deflated over this balloon issue,” she said, adding that while she applauded the goal, the proposal was “too far reaching in many ways.”

Long-time resident Donna Lumpkin agreed, saying the popularity of the Friday night concerts is “largely because of the color of these balloons.” For years she owned a camp on North Beach and found very few balloons on the beach. “There's a lot of trash, but balloons, no,” she said.

“I think it's something we need to keep,” she said of balloon sales at band concerts.

According to the draft bylaw, balloons would not be banned until after this season's band concerts end, so the Masons could continue sales this summer, as selectmen promised, board member Dean Nicastro pointed out. But he agreed the language should be amended to allow private use, and the ban should only apply to public settings. How that is defined board members were not sure; is a wedding a public events? Are merchants that sell inflated balloons public? Board members decided to ask town counsel to clarify those details.

Selectmen felt town counsel had gone a bit too far in tweaking the busking bylaw. The draft measure required the board of selectmen to issue permits, prohibited busking from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday nights in the summer (so as not to compete with Chatham Band concerts) and set a $50 fine for violations.

Board members said they did not want to get into issuing permits, something they felt could be done clerically by town staff. They also said there are parts of Main Street that could use some additional activity during Friday night band concerts.

While there have been some complaints about busking, and board members have concerns – such as the narrow width of the sidewalks downtown – the issue hasn't risen to the point that a bylaw is needed, they agreed. Existing bylaws govern noise and obstructing passage on streets and crosswalks, Nicastro said, and all that may need to be done is to develop a measure prohibiting obstruction of sidewalks.

“We don't have a lot of space downtown,” Dykens agreed.

“There have been fantastic performers on Main Street,” said Metters, who has a shop downtown, “others not so much.”

Selectmen decided to table the bylaw and see what happens with the the weekly music event being planned by the Chatham Merchants Association for this summer (see separate story). If busking elicits more complaints, they can revisit the measure.