A Vermont Superior Court judge shot down Green Mountain Fireworks’ preliminary injunction request last week that would have prevented the town from interfering with its business and seizing its inventory, court documents show.
Owners of Green Mountain Fireworks requested the injunction in hopes of resuming business prior to July 4. They said failure to do so would essentially bankrupt their company.
But granting the injunction would put members of the public “at an unreasonable risk of injury and harm,” wrote Judge Robert Mello, deferring to the selectboard’s decision to deny the company a municipal permit just hours earlier.
Matthew Lavigne, owner and manager of Green Mountain Fireworks, testified at a hearing June 27 that he believed he had all necessary permits prior to opening for business after conversations with Zoning Administrator Lisa Riddle.
“I sent Lisa an email making sure I had all the permits,” Lavigne testified. “She said ‘Yes, all permits have been issued.’”
He also said he told the state fire marshal during his building inspection that his application was for a retail store selling fireworks. At the selectboard’s hearing last week, Malletts Bay Fire Chief Steve Bourgeois said a representative of the fire department was present for that inspection.
The town’s lawyer, Brian Monaghan, asked Lavigne why he thought he was applying for a fireworks permit when fireworks aren’t mentioned in either of his zoning permits, neither of which went to the selectboard or fire chief for approval, as required by state law.
In May of 2018, Police Chief Jennifer Morrison emailed Lavigne and GMF saying they were in violation of the law by selling fireworks because they had no municipal permit to do so.
“We do not issue such a permit,” Morrison said. “There is no such thing.”
However, after GMF filed the lawsuit on June 6, the town suggested Lavigne apply for a fireworks permit, something he should have been told before the issue escalated, his attorney Lisa Shocket argued.
“The complete absence of any regulation in the municipal ordinance is front and center here,” Shocket said at the hearing Wednesday. “I think that goes to the heart of the argument.”
Lavigne applied for a municipal fireworks permit June 15 and the town held a public hearing on June 26, at which eight people testified.
Per Engstrom, a two-year customer of GMF, spoke to Lavigne and Bronwyn Proffit-Higgins’ responsibility and good business practices, calling them “really nice people.” Another customer, Aaron Edelstein, argued that people will go to other states to buy fireworks anyway.
“Why not keep the revenue here and create jobs?” he asked.
Malletts Bay Fire Chief Ste Bourgeois urged the town not to accept the permit over safety risks.
“Fireworks start an average of 18,500 fires per year,” Bourgeois said, citing a National Fire Protection Association 2016 study. He also mentioned a fire started by fireworks several years prior in Colchester.
“I’m very concerned,” he said.
Lavigne said he talks with customers about safety rules with fireworks and a considerate use policy for when they light them. He also said if customers have a permit from the town, they would not be in violation of the law when purchasing them from his store, although he admitted he doesn’t require customers show him permits before purchasing.
But Chief Morrison questioned the legality of the matter even if GMF were granted a permit.
“This is not about whether these are nice people trying to do a good thing for the community,” Morrison said. “The issue is whether or not the law in Vermont as currently written allows for either the sale or the possession of fireworks.”
Not being able to sell fireworks for the month of June cost GMF 80 percent of their profits, Proffit-Higgins said in an affidavit, a hardship that Lavigne also noted during his testimony.
“I would go bankrupt for sure,” he said when asked what would happen if he’s denied the injunction.
Reached after the decision Friday, Proffit-Higgins said they will still pursue the order for declaratory justice against the town, but expected a “very long battle.”
She said she’s disappointed in the results and wished they could have settled the issue out of court.
“We presented ourselves to [the town] on a nearly daily basis seeking a way to resolve this,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”