Private parties on Long Island Sound tax U.S. Coast Guard

Fireworks over the water

Axel Rouvin, Wikimedia Commons

Fireworks over the water

Washington – When it comes to parties along Connecticut’s coast, the sky is not the limit for those who can afford it.

Every year, dozens of private events are held on Long Island Sound, many involving fireworks, that tap the resources of the Connecticut-headquartered U.S. Coast Guard.

Some of those “marine events” — like the July 4th fireworks many coastal towns hold every year — are open to the public.

But often the Coast Guard is deployed to enforce a safety zone for a private party.

On May 10, for instance, the Coast Guard is slated to patrol a safety perimeter off the coast of Guilford for a bat mitzvah that will include a fireworks display. The fireworks will be shot from a barge in the Sound, and the Coast Guard will have to make sure no boat gets too close to that barge during a two-hour period.

Then there’s the June wedding for a bride from Greenwich that will also feature fireworks over the water. The Coast Guard declined to identify the sponsors of the bat mitzvah and the Greenwich wedding, citing privacy concerns.

Yale’s annual regatta requires Coast Guard involvement, as does the Mason’s Island Yacht Club fireworks in the Noank section of Groton. And there are dozens of yacht club races and other private functions that tax the Coast Guard’s time and resources.

The Coast Guard unit stationed in New Haven, known as Captain of the Port Long Island Sound, processes nearly 1,000 permits for marine events every year, setting up and enforcing safety perimeters for many of them.

“It’s a lot of work, there’s no doubt about that,” Coast Guard Cmdr. Amy Beach said.

She said establishing safety zones for parties falls within the Coast Guard’s duties, in addition to patrolling for drug smugglers and terrorists. The Coast Guard is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“Where we come from on this is that the safety of our waterways is our focus,” Beach said.

Former Coast Guard officer Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, agreed that the navigable waters should be safe for boaters. But he said taxpayers should not be subsidizing private parties when the Coast Guard must be deployed to keep boaters away.

“What taxpayers are giving (the Greenwich bride) is a wedding present,” he said.

Ellis said event organizers should reimburse the Coast Guard for the cost of vessel time, fuel and administrative work.

“At the very least, there should be a charge for these things,” he said.

Applying for a permit

Before each event, the Coast Guard must process a marine event application filed by the  person hosting a party. If fireworks are involved, the fireworks company usually applies for a permit.

If the event requires the Coast Guard to establish a safety perimeter so boats in the Sound don’t get too close to fireworks, regattas or the like, a notice must be posted in the Federal Register that solicits public comment. But most people don’t know about these notices, and sometimes, as in the case of the Guilford bat mitzvah, the Coast Guard uses its authority to waive the public comment period. The Federal Register is the official journal of the federal government. Published daily, it contains most routine publications and public notices of new government regulations.

The Coast Guard may also have to patrol an event, or ask the Coast Guard Auxiliary – a volunteer group — to do so. The Coast Guard often reimburses the auxiliary for the fuel spent patrolling a safety perimeter.

“We can’t stop (private events) because regulations say they can hold them if we think their safety plan is sufficient,” Beach said.

The Coast Guard is called to provide safety at thousands of events each year across the nation. Some are as large as the America’s Cup race and others as small as a local boat show – or a bat mitzvah, birthday or wedding.

But Beach said no Coast Guard sector in the nation has more marine events each year than the one in New Haven, most occurring from late spring and to late fall.

“People around here like their parties,” Beach said.

‘A lot of rich people around here’

When anyone — city, town or private group or citizen — wants to put on a fireworks display over Long Island Sound, there’s an appreciable cost.

Frank M. Coluccio, president of Legion Fireworks in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., arranges some of them and will be setting off the pyrotechnics for the June wedding in Greenwich.

He said the plans are for a short-timed display during a rehearsal dinner, but he declined to say how much the display would cost. “But the barge and tugboat alone costs from $5,000 to $10,000,” Coluccio said.

That’s because “there’s a lot of diesel fuel involved,” and manpower is needed to load the barge with equipment and fireworks, he said. Then there’s the cost of the fireworks themselves and of shooting them off.

Coluccio said he deploys a safety boat or two, depending on the size of the event, to help enforce regulations, which he says are restrictive.

The Coast Guard will also be involved in the rehearsal party for the Greenwich bride.

Coluccio said he’s not surprised by the number of marine events that involve fireworks.

“There’s a lot of rich people around here,” he said.

Among the wealthy party-givers is Charles Dolan, founder of Cablevision.

The Dolan family owns several homes in Oyster Bay, N.Y. For about 20 years, it had been a Dolan family custom to put on a private fireworks display over Long Island Sound on the Fourth of July.

But the Dolan family canceled the display last year. The family did not say why, but the year before, as hundreds of boats that had gathered to watch the display were leaving, a 34-foot cabin cruiser capsized and three children trapped in the cabin drowned.

That’s why the Coast Guard is concerned about private parties that include fireworks, Beach said.

Cablevision spokesman Charles Schuler declined to say if the family planned fireworks in a family party this year.

Politics

Sometimes politics is involved in these private parties.

Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., is under a House ethics investigation related to allegations that he sought a campaign donation from a constituent he had helped with a fireworks permit in 2012. The constituent, Eric Semler, wanted Fireworks by Grucci, to put on a show for his son’s bar mitzvah, but there was a problem with the permitting process that required the congressman’s help.

Bishop denies any wrongdoing.

Fireworks by Grucci did not return calls requesting comment.

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