Canby City Council to Reconsider Noise Exemption for High School Fireworks

Editor’s note: The fireworks are not going away — at least not anytime soon. At a future meeting, the council will discuss removing the noise exemption for fireworks at high school football games, which just means the district would have to request a variance each year — same as most every other large event that happens in town. Please don’t freak out.

Many a young person seeking counsel have received the sage advice, “Don’t play with fire.” Perhaps, in Canby, a seasoned elected official might advise a younger one to avoid playing with the “fireworks issue.”

Specifically, the aerial fireworks displays used to celebrate touchdowns at Canby High School home football games, a much-beloved community tradition that goes back decades, but that has become increasingly criticized by neighboring residents.

Two years ago, the council held public hearings on the fireworks issue at the request of local resident Paul Ylvisaker and other neighbors, but things did not go the way they’d hoped.

Rather than restrict the Canby School District’s aerial displays, they granted them an exemption in the existing noise ordinance, meaning they can use fireworks and other explosive devices at football games with impunity — and without requesting a variance and public hearing, as is required by most other events and organizations in town.

But if elected officials had hoped that codifying the fireworks displays into the noise ordinance would be the end of the matter, it certainly was not. Despite a down year in 2018, in which the Cougs scored only three or four times at home, Mr. Ylvisaker was back at city council before the following season to again ask that the practice be ended.

This time, he brought a petition signed by approximately 50 neighboring residents, including two local veterinary clinics and an assisted living facility. A sympathetic city administrator reached out to “request” that the district celebrate their football team in some other way, and — well — I think we all remember what happened next.

Mr. Ylvisaker, who suffers from PTSD and a chronic pain issue that the random explosions exacerbate, has become practically as common a sight at city council meetings as the mayor himself, and he vows that he’s not going away. He says the issue is about fairness, livability and equity toward all citizens.

A pastor’s son, who became a general contractor but admitted he still has a bit of the preacher in him, Ylvisaker tried to explain on Wednesday the impact the fireworks have on him when they’re set off practically in his backyard.

(“The beginning of a game — I’m willing to tolerate that, so Canby gets its fix. I am not willing to tolerate the random explosions, that makes my heart beat [faster], puts my blood pressure up and causes pain levels to go up. I’m tired of that. I’m also tired of having my favorite cat bolt fron my lap and go under the bed.”)

His wife, Brenda Ylvisaker, also speaking last week, said she understands the importance of tradition. But she also understands that, sometimes, traditions have to change.

She spoke of another athletic tradition at her alma mater, Washington State University, which she saw end after being celebrated for over 50 years.

(“We had a tradition of locking up a real cougar on campus. And I like to say I had something to do with that tradition ending. And it needed to end. I like cougars, but I’d prefer cougars in the wild. I like fireworks, but I’d prefer them not to be random and explosive and harmful to my family members.”)

Since last year, the Ylvisakers have maintained that they’re not against the school district or its football team. They say they want the Cougars to win, and they want them to be celebrated — just, you know, in a different way, one that has less of an impact on their neighborhood.

Brenda Ylvisaker said she would support — even financially — involving the high school community to envision and realize a new, unique Canby tradition. She even made a suggestion that, we admit, sounds pretty cool.

(“Just imagine a [huge] screen, and instead of fireworks, it’s a cougar roaring to celebrate the touchdown. That’s just one example. Let’s uncage the cougar, and let’s free the minds of these young students to envision something different. What would be so wrong with that?”)

The discussion by councilors that followed was not about ending the fireworks practice, but merely undoing the two-year-old exemption in the city’s noise ordinance. This would require district officials to seek a noise variance each year.

Some, like Council President Tim Dale, asked what would be the point of that, when all councilors have said they support the fireworks and would probably vote to approve a variance if presented with one. After all, the Ylvisakers are asking for the practice to be ended — not for the chance to appear before the council and be shot down on an annual basis.

But, as Councilor Sarah Spoon explained, to her, it’s about the chance to be heard, and for the community to continue to have conversation around a topic that is so important to so many.

(“Right now, do I think the fireworks are going to change? No. I think that they’ll apply for the variance, and the majority of council will allow the variance. Do I think that will happen every year? I don’t know. I think it will depend on what the citizen engagement is. But I don’t think it’s good governance to shut citizen engagement down because it’s easier. I think we should make government as accessible as possible. We should have as much conversation as possible.”)

No vote was taken on the matter last week, but the idea of reopening the noise ordinance and removing the exemption for fireworks at high school football games will be brought back for consideration at a future council meeting.

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