Town Could put a Damper on Burn Permits

After a plea from a resident who said the smoke has been constant in recent weeks, the Town Council is thinking of ways to control the prevalence of open burns in Portsmouth.

Patch File Photo
Patch File Photo
If there's smoke, there's fire and in Portsmouth, there apparently has been a bit too much of both lately.

The Town Council last week took a step towards re-thinking the town's burn permit rules after a plea from Albert N. Silvia, a Randall Lane resident, who said the smoke has been so constant in recent weeks, he and his wife haven't been able to enjoy their property.

"I like to spend time out of the house, my wife likes to work in the garden, to get some fresh air and we haven't been able to do that because of the excessive burning in the area," Silvia said.

The other day, it was so bad he suggested they go for a ride and they went to the other end of town and they encountered the same thing — smoke from burning brush.

That was the last straw for Mr. Silvia, who drove to Town Hall to tell the Town Clerk that he wanted to address the Town Council.

"I said if you don't believe it, go to the front door of Town Hall, open the doors and take a deep breath and they concurred with me," Silvia said. "You actually have smoke coming into Town Hall."

Silvia came with both a complaint and a suggestion for the town to consider collecting yard debris and brush and chipping it up into mulch, similar to how Christmas Trees are recycled and kept out of the landfill.

At the very least, he asked for the town to consider limiting the days that burning permits are issued, or restricting them to certain times of year.

"It would be more environmentally friendly and help control some of the air pollution and I think we will all be able to breathe a little better," Silvia said.

Portsmouth grants burning permits upon request, but residents do not actually need a permit for fires that occur in an approved container with a screened cover or before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m.

Fire Chief Michael M. Cranson said the Fire Department issued 200 burning permits and 20 bonfire permits last year and "the current ordinance works out about 90 percent of the time," meaning the department received about 25 complaints from neighbors about smoke or other concerns related to a nearby burn.

Cranson acknowledged that there are likely many burns happening across town that don't have a permit and the department has not limited the issuance of permits in particular neighborhoods if there are already a slew of active permits in a clustered area.

Town Council President James Seveney said he agreed that there is a problem if one neighborhood has 10 burning permits issued during the same week, and a complaint rate of 10 percent suggests the ordinance did need a revisit.

"If you're getting 20 to 25 complaints, someone is infringing on someone else's pursuit of happiness," Seveney said.

But he noted that the council as a whole is "reluctant to say no more burning," which means residents will always be able to get permits from the Fire Department, no matter what happens to the ordinance. 

As far as Silva's suggestion the town engage in a mulching operation, it was agreed that the DPW needs to give input since there are cost and personnel impacts to be considered.

And another issue is the possibility that people might be burning commercially-collected yard waste on their private residences, which might be happening near Silvia's home.

"I think this one guy is bringing stuff in," he said, noting he has more trees in his yard yet the piles of branches and shrubs at the burning site always seem to growing and growing.

"There are many homes in our area and I've seen places that have piles and piles of brush and debris waiting to be burned. It's a constant smoke around our area and it's difficult to breathe," Silvia said.

The council took no specific action at its meeting last week. The topic is expected to be addressed at a future meeting.

Town resident for many years June 03, 2014 at 07:51 PM
What about people using fire pits for summer s'mores and relaxation with friends and family? I don't want that to be dampened!
Don Medeiros June 04, 2014 at 04:46 AM
The State of Rhode Island should adopt legislation similar to Massachusetts which designates a period of time each year when open burning is permitted. I believe in MA open burning is not allowed (with exceptions such as campfires) after March. Their law has been in place for many years and those people who burn brush or leaves have come to accept it and abide by its regulation to a specific time period. Every Rhode Island city and town has its own open burning ordinance and this practice needs to change. Citizens have the God given right to breath fresh air.


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