Island County commissioners won’t fund drone fireworks display

A light show of unmanned aerial vehicles does not qualify as fireworks, county commissioners said.

Unless the drones blow up or otherwise belch flames, a light show of unmanned aerial vehicles does not qualify as fireworks, according to the Island County commissioners.

The board of commissioners decided last month to make $50,000 of lodging tax funds available for community fireworks displays. But they weren’t happy this week when the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, or LTAC, recommended funding the Langley Chamber of Commerce’s proposal for a drone “fireworks” display.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said the board decided to offer the funding for a community fireworks display after adopting further restrictions on personal pyrotechnics.

“The fireworks we banned were the kind that blow up. We didn’t ban light shows,” she said. “The fact that two communities came up with a light show idea is great, but they need to fund it on their own.”

In addition, Commissioner Janet St. Clair was perplexed by the committee’s decision to fund a proposal that scored second highest out of three applications. The Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce also jumped on the drone bandwagon, and its proposal earned the most points.

Johnson and St. Clair decided to send the recommendation back to LTAC for reconsideration, with the message that only the Freeland proposal was eligible. Commissioner Melanie Bacon was absent from the meeting.

In January, the Board of Island County Commissioners adopted a resolution in a 2-1 vote banning consumer use of mortar fireworks in unincorporated areas of the county; Johnson opposed it. Additionally, the resolution prohibits the discharge of fireworks on July 5.

Afterward, Bacon proposed the idea of offering lodging tax grants to fund professional and safe patriotic pyrotechnics. Lodging tax funds are supposed to be used to promote tourism.

Under state law, the commissioners can’t completely change the recommendation of the LTAC, but they can deny it altogether and send it back for reconsideration.

As Johnson said this week, the commissioners were intending, or at least hoping, to fund a fireworks display in Freeland. Specifically, they hoped the Freeland Chamber of Commerce or another group would bring back a version of the Celebrate America fireworks display and related activities on July 3.

South Whidbey Assembly of God formerly organized the event, which drew giant crowds to watch the display over Holmes Harbor. The Freeland chamber is planning to take it on this year.

The county received three applicants for the fireworks funds. The Langley Chamber of Commerce requested $50,000 for the “Langley Lights the Night” drone display.

Likewise, the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce also proposed drone displays for Holland Happening, Independence Day and New Year’s Eve. The request was for $48,000.

The Freeland Chamber of Commerce asked for $50,000 for a Freeland Freedom Fest & Fireworks on July 3.

Under the LTAC rating scale, Oak Harbor’s proposal scored 121, Langley’s proposal earned 100 and Freeland received just under 86 points. The commissioners didn’t discuss what the metrics were for the scoring.

St. Clair questioned why LTAC didn’t recommend the top scoring proposal. Johnson opined that it was because such committees are weighted towards people who live in District 1, which covers South and Central Whidbey.

The LTAC also asked the commissioners to make an additional $100,000 available to fund all three displays. Johnson and St. Clair made it clear that it wasn’t an option.

In the end, the commissioners said they hoped the LTAC could resolve the fireworks funding as soon as possible, especially since the Fourth of July is just around the corner.