After law bars NC lantern festivals, refunds are up in the air

GOLDSBORO, N.C. — A Veterans Day weekend celebration in Goldsboro won’t happen due to a new law recently discovered by the city.

Hundreds of customers are calling for refunds after the second cancellation in two months of Lantern Fest events in North Carolina. Fayetteville was set to host its third straight Lantern Fest Oct. 7, but canceled the activities a couple of weeks before the scheduled launch. Goldsboro and Fayetteville both cited the 2017 version of North Carolina’s Fire Code.

Section 308.1.6.3 from the 2012 Fire Code states “A person shall not release or cause to be released an untethered sky lantern,” but lawmakers amended the code this year by adding a general definition of a sky lantern “SKY LANTERN. An unmanned device with a fuel source that incorporates an open flame in order to make the device airborne.”

Utah-based Sack Lunch Productions hosts Lantern Fest events across the country. Participants light biodegradable lanterns made of rice paper, bamboo, string, and wax, which sail into the sky like small hot air balloons. This meets the North Carolina requirement for a sky lantern.

The company’s website has a section about refunds which states: “Because of the nature of the LanternFest® event and the outdoor location of the event, all tickets and fees are non-refundable and all sales are final.”

After a section about weather and safety, the policy states: “Efforts to reschedule the event will be made for the next available date at the venue where weather conditions permit. Participant tickets will automatically be transferred to the rescheduled event. In the event that a participant cannot attend the new date tickets are transferable to another person.”

Fayetteville ticket holders received a notice that their passes would be good for a Lantern Fest in Goldsboro on Nov. 11, the Saturday of Veterans Day weekend. Lantern Fest’s director, Spencer Humiston, said a majority of the Fayetteville ticketholders had zip codes within about an hour’s drive of Goldsboro. Humiston said many attendees travel an hour to participate, and the other upcoming Lantern Fest events are in Phoenix, Albuquerque, St. Louis, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.

Humiston said past launches at the Fayetteville Speedway went very well. He said contracts for the 2017 event were signed last year, shortly after the 2016 event, but before the Fire Code changed Jan. 1. Humiston said he was unaware of the amended code until recently — and that the host cities also didn’t know about the change.

“Several weeks ago, it was brought to our attention that there’s a state law that restricts that, and unfortunately as we did investigation into that we discovered that yes there is a state law that prohibits untethered lanterns in North Carolina,” Goldsboro city manager Scott Stevens said. “Therefore the event that they’re proposing is not legal in the state, and we certainly wouldn’t knowingly violate state law.”

Stevens announced Friday that the Nov. 11 Goldsboro event could not take place. The city previously provided 400 free tickets to military families stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and Stevens said he planned to attend.

The Lantern Fest team was shocked to hear about the cancellation, and is still trying to find a way to make it happen. Humiston, the business’s director, said state and municipal fire officials failed to communicate the changes to the Fire Code.

“The state hasn’t bothered to inform its fire marshals that there have been substantial changes to its fire code, and I’m not sure whose job that is, but it’s not my job to call around North Carolina and tell people that we can’t do our event in their city,” Humiston said.

“We’ve done everything that we were supposed to do as small business owners, and the state is saying we’ve screwed up on the state level not giving the information to local departments. The local departments screwed up by telling us we could do it, when apparently we couldn’t do it. And then, attorneys screwed up in reviewing contracts for an event that at the time they reviewed the contract, ostensibly under the new fire codes you’re not allowed to do it either,” he said.

“No one had notified us of any changes under the course of nine months, not until about two weeks before the event that the Fayetteville Fire Department called and said that we’ve been made aware from the state that these are now illegal and we can’t have it.”

Humiston said final versions of the Goldsboro contracts received signatures early in the summer, after several Lantern Fest staff members made a visit to Wayne County in order to survey the site and meet with firefighters. The spot selected for Goldsboro’s launch is right across the street from the Goldsboro Fire Department Station No. 1.

The company is making calls to state legislators in the hope there might be changes to the recent amendment, or perhaps a grandfather clause type of exemption which might permit the Lantern Fest events negotiated in 2016 to take place.

“Allow a flex period on this new law that allows a local jurisdiction to issue a permit if it is properly licensed, bonded, and insured. The fire departments in all these areas support our event. They would allow us to permit it, we can get it off, we can make our customers happy, the state rectifies a problem that they unilaterally created, and then after that we just aren’t able to (hold these events in North Carolina),” Humiston said.

He estimates the company spent $20,000 on nine months of marketing and another $20,000 in physical items for the North Carolina events. Humiston declined to disclose how many tickets were sold but he said there is likely $100,000 in total sunk costs.

There are a lot of unhappy customers. Eileen Brassard bought two tickets to the Fayetteville festival in order to share the experience with one of her daughters. Brassard and her husband celebrated their anniversary at the 2015 Fayetteville Lantern Fest.

“It was amazing seeing all the lights and watching it go up in the sky and just hearing the oohs and aahs, seeing the faces of small children. It starts out small and you could see all the lights go up and then just farther away up in the sky,” Brassard said.

She was unable to attend the 2016 festival but was eager to do it again. Now she wants a refund, but attempts to contact the company have resulted in no response. She said conversations with other customers provided advice to contact a bank to get money back, but Brassard said she wants her money back directly from Lantern Fest.

Humiston said a decision about refunds will be made in the next week or two, once the company knows if there is any possibility of the law being amended for late 2017 or early 2018.

“I would like some accountability from the state in saying, ‘Hey, we’re really sorry that we screwed this up so bad and that you are now on the hook for around $100,000,’” he said.

“When we contract with private individuals and we screw up … When we didn’t do a good enough job digging into the minutia of the fire code, and we screw up, we have zero problem admitting that we’re wrong and quickly dealing with it,” Humiston said. “In this case, it is 100 percent on the state and state agencies. We completely understand that at the end of the day, we are responsible, because people didn’t buy tickets from the state. They bought tickets from us. But we’re hopefully, over the next few weeks, holding the state’s feet to the fire to take some responsibility and work with us in rectifying it.”

Goldsboro’s city manager said he has been in contact with Lantern Fest staff this week.

“I don’t see a way around it for this event that was planned in Goldsboro this year. There’s not a way to work around it at this point, and so that will be a debate for future events wherever they occur in North Carolina,” Scott Stevens said. “We’re as sorry as anybody that the event can’t be held here. We didn’t have any money to make from it. I would encourage people to go back to Lantern Fest. I know that their policy has been not to refund tickets, but I also think that they are wanting to honor that they were going to hold an event that they now can’t be held, so I know that they’re working through what they may or may not be able to offer back to those that purchased tickets with them.”

The City of Goldsboro’s official statement on the issue, including comments from the fire chief, can be read here.