The California Coastal Commission today postponed a decision on the future of the city’s 60 beach fire rings until after May, when another agency will consider whether to lift an exemption that allows bonfires on beaches while limiting other wood-burning fires.
“This exemption will be lifted,” said Commissioner William Burke, chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District board. “Anybody who thinks that is not going to pass is not in touch with reality.”
Burke’s comments drew applause, and moments later the commissioners agreed unanimously to wait for the outcome of its sister agency’s meeting before going forward with their decision.
Corona del Mar resident Frank Peters, who attended the Coastal Commission meeting in San Diego, said he was “ecstatic” by the development.
“It looks like the Coastal Commission is looking to punt this issue,” he said. “We’re very encouraged and hopeful. This is going to become a much larger removal of fire rings potentially — Huntington Beach and elsewhere.”
The City of Newport Beach applied last year for permission to remove 60 fire rings, including 27 from Big Corona State Beach, largely because of concerns about the harmful effects of wood smoke.
Coastal Commission staff had recommended denial of the coastal permit, issuing a report that said the rings were “a unique recreational facility for which there is no substitution.” The report also said that while staff understood the dangers of wood smoke — a major concern of some residents and City Council members — the city had not conducted studies that proved that fire ring smoke was the causing pollution near the beaches where they are located.
Newport Beach’s application referred to the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Rule 445, which was adopted in 2008 and banned wood-burning fireplaces in new developments. That rule specifically exempts beach bonfires, and that exemption had concerned Coastal Commission staff.
The SCAQMD’s board meeting is scheduled for May 3. Newport Beach agreed to the postponement, and the Coastal Commission will wait for the air quality decision before revisiting the issue.
Nonetheless, the commissioners conducted a full hearing that lasted 1 hour and 27 minutes.
Fifteen residents spoke, nearly evenly split on whether the fire rings were a health hazard or a classic California icon worth preserving.
“It’s a very unique feature of Newport Beach,” said Nadine Turner, a vocal fire rings proponent. “It’s very sad.”
Denise Wallace, who has lived 400 feet from the Big Corona Beach fire rings for 40 years, said the rings were popular with groups and with families. The city’s proposal to replace them with exercise equipment, play structures and volleyball courts wouldn’t be the same.
“It’s an icon of California living,” she said.
But other residents described health problems, including emphysema and cancer, noxious odors and soot from the fire rings.
“I love nostalgia, I’m crazy for nostalgia,” said John Hamilton. “But for me, my health is more important.”
Commissioner Esther Sanchez said she had concerns that Newport Beach had not presented a more comprehensive plan to deal with fire rings issues.
“There’s not really been a real plan,” she said. Air quality might be affected from barbecues as much as beach fires, she said, but the city did not study that issue. They also did not take steps to lessen the impact of beach fires, she said, and the city’s plans for amenities to replace the rings seemed more geared toward local residents than regional beach visitors.
“It looks to me like it’s a way of controlling the public,” she said. She moved to support the staff’s recommendation of denial of the permit, but she agreed that the Coastal Commission should wait to see what the air quality board decides in May.
After the meeting, City Manager Dave Kiff said in an electronic message that city staff looks forward to a second review after the AQMD’s action.
“We took heart at Dr. Burke’s compelling and informed comments,” he wrote. “They were very powerful.”
Burke said he’d been studying air quality issues for a third of his life, and at this point it was not for himself but for young people.
“Don’t come tell me, ‘I have to have fire rings’ because you need a good time,” he said. “I’m very passionate about this issue.”
City officials have considered removing beach fire rings since 2009 when the issue was set aside because of budget issues. In September 2011, Councilwoman Nancy Gardner asked that the issue be studied after a lawsuit was filed against Huntington Beach when a child was injured at a fire ring there. In February 2012, the City’s Parks, Beaches & Recreation Commission voted 4-3 to recommend that the Council remove the rings, and the Council voted unanimously last March to remove them.
Read our earlier stories here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Bottom photo courtesy of Nadine Turner.