Lawsuit challenges East Ridge fireworks

Lawsuit challenges East Ridge fireworks

September 30th, 2011 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

Attendees watch fireworks at a Fourth of July celebration at Camp Jordan in East Ridge. Tennessee legislators have approved fireworks sales for East Ridge starting July 1, 2012.

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A group of East Ridge residents staunchly opposed to fireworks sales in their city has joined two major East Tennessee fireworks retailers to file a lawsuit against the city.

In a 23-page complaint filed in Hamilton County Chancery Court on Wednesday, the residents claim that a new state law allowing fireworks sales inside East Ridge city limits is detrimental to their safety and property values.

The fireworks retailers, meanwhile, decry what they call inconsistency in the law that could hurt their business.

Both groups call the new law unconstitutional.

Instead of challenging the Tennessee General Assembly, which passed the fireworks bill May 21, the group has aimed its complaint at the city, which they say is implementing zoning ordinances based on a faulty law.

East Ridge residents listed as plaintiffs are Dennis and Karen Massengale, Carnell Storie, Roxie Davis and Crissy Lawson. All say they are longtime residents worried about fireworks sales disrupting their peace and safety.

The Massengales added that fireworks sales will harm their business, ChattaMusic. It's on Ringgold Road, part of the corridor that East Ridge has designated for fireworks sales.

"I'm a concerned citizen of East Ridge, and I want what's best for the city," said Dennis Massengale, who referred all questions related to the suit to the group's attorneys, Christopher Varner, of Chattanooga, and Jeffrey Yarbro, of Nashville.

"We believe we're right on the law," Varner said Thursday. "We fail to see how this statute is in the best interest of East Ridge and its citizens."

He declined to comment further about the case.

Marion-Bradley Fireworks Retailers and Wet Willy's Fireworks Supermarket of Tennessee Inc. claim they have structured their businesses for rural counties, and the East Ridge law "undermines the business model of these existing fireworks sellers."

Wet Willy's Fireworks demands a declaration as to whether it "could engage in fireworks sales to urban counties" because of the East Ridge exception.

For more than 50 years, state legislation has barred fireworks sales in Tennessee counties with populations higher than 200,000 residents. Hamilton County has more than 336,000 people.

East Ridge is the first exception to the rule, setting what the lawsuit calls a problematic precedent that "would likely have the unforeseen consequence of eliminating the general statutory prohibition on fireworks sales in urban counties."

The suit also claims that "suspending the general law for the benefit of individuals in just one municipality is unconstitutional."

East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert declined to comment Thursday, saying he received a copy of the full complaint minutes before City Council's agenda session that evening. He said the city will hire an attorney through the Tennessee Municipal League.

On Sept. 16, the East Ridge City Council voted on first reading to adopt an ordinance that would open the door to fireworks retailers. The vote on a second reading was slated for Thursday evening, but was postponed to Oct. 13.

The city has 30 days to respond to the complaint.