BELVILLE — A small town has added an enforcement mechanism to stop illegal open burns in town limits.
The Bellville Board of Commissioners adopted a new ordinance Monday, which gives the town authority to issue fines for violations of the state general statute regulating open burns.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality can technically fine someone who violates the statute up to a maximum $25,000. Belville Mayor Mike Allen said the state may not have the resources to enforce violations in the town and the new rule gives Belville a way to step in.
Allen said the action was prompted by complaints about residents burning trash or in close proximity to homes, adding unregulated burns could potentially lead to a larger fire that threatens the town.
“Our main issue here is there’s an enforcement gap,” town attorney Norwood Blanchard said during the meeting. “The state doesn’t always consider things in every particular community to be a priority for enforcement and they’ve got a limited number of people. So this just allows the town to respond a little more quickly.”
The town, by way of Town Manager Athina Williams as the de facto code-enforcement officer, can now issue increasing fines, starting at $250 for the first violation before increasing to $500 and finally $1,000 for every violation thereafter. The penalties are significantly higher than the town’s other code enforcement fines, starting at $50 and capping out at $200.
Belville planning consultant Jeff Cappadona told the board, when asked why the fines are so much higher, they are similar to fines actually issued by the state.
Cappadona said prior to adopting the ordinance, the town had no way of enforcing the state regulations. The recommendation to adopt an ordinance that references and enforces state law came from the town’s planning board, but it stands alone from the zoning ordinance.
Belville commissioner Ryan Merrill, a fire and rescue professional, noted the area has a high fire danger rating, but its high humidity lowers the chance of spread.
“There’s definitely a need for mitigation,” Merrill said.
State statute only allows open burns to contain woody material like trees and plants. Fire-setters are also required to get a free permit from the North Carolina Forest Service and follow some rules on setbacks, as well as disclose the purpose and anticipated size of the fire.
Belville’s ordinance passed unanimously after a public hearing on the issue, during which the only comment from the public was a question shouted from the audience, asking why the town felt the need to adopt rules above what the state requires.
Allen emphasized the town, which does not have its own police department, can issue civil fines, but there is no criminal charge tied to open burns. The state can also charge a violator with a misdemeanor.
The change makes Belville part of a very limited crowd in the Cape Fear to place special regulations on burning. Wilmington disallows open burns entirely in city limits due to air quality concerns and the threat of fire to buildings in an urban setting, but it offers a yard waste pickup program.
Cappadona told the town commissioners he spoke to Wilmington officials and the pickup program allows them to disallow burning because it provides an alternative means to dispose of yard waste. New Hanover County, which encompasses Wilmington, has no open burning regulations.
Belville neighbor Leland started discussions about cracking down on burns in February in response to smoke pollution from large burns on construction sites in the rapidly-expanding town. Yet, Leland still only recommends residents not set fires.
Specific regulations on burns outside functionally banning them within a municipality is rare. However, Leland councilman Bill McHugh questioned whether all the fires were legal and if that would give the town a means to act.
“I’ve heard from several folks, I haven’t gotten anything concrete, but several rumors that there’s a lot of items that aren’t trees and brush being thrown into those piles and burned rather than being disposed of properly, which I think could potentially give us an enforcement mechanism,” McHugh said at the February meeting.
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