Fire rings once again caused a heated discussion during a Newport Beach City Council meeting this week.
On Tuesday, council members and 10 members of the public spoke on the, now, 10 possible plans for the controversial beach pits.
Staff had previously written up seven plans, a Balboa Peninsula resident group submitted two new plans, and City Manager Dave Kiff presented one more idea during Tuesday’s meeting.
Kiff suggested placing the rings in the previous configuration, but making them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District 444 rule states that fire rings that are made available to persons with disabilities and comply with the ADA do not have to be spaced out, Kiff explained.
The rings would look slightly different, he added. They would have an 11 foot by 11 foot square path surrounding the ring, which would be slightly taller. There would also be a walkway leading to each ring.
It would be fairly expensive to start it up and the coastal permits may be difficult to obtain, Kiff noted. It also doesn’t improve air quality unless CNG is used, he added.
Kiff spoke with South Coast AQMD board member Barry Wallerstein who mentioned a concern that this section of the rule “should not be used as an end-around the spacing,” Kiff noted.
Councilman Keith Curry made a motion to poll the council members on all 10 of the plans to determine which one(s) they support and which one(s) they don’t and then send a letter to the Coastal Commission explaining the results.
The motion failed with Mayor Ed Selich and councilmen Scott Peotter, Marshall “Duffy” Duffield and Kevin Muldoon voting no.
Selich said didn’t support the motion because it could potentially “open us up to another CEQA challenge,” he said.
But there was plenty of discussion on the 10 plans from the public.
Most of Tuesday’s speakers were against wood-burning pits, citing primarily health and safety reasons.
Supporters stated that it’s important to preserve the history and atmosphere.
Opinions from both sides of the issue elicited applause from the audience.
Several speakers agreed that the footprint of the rings should not be expanded. One resident that agreed with that opinion was former councilman and peninsula resident, Mike Henn.
Henn bought his home on the beach more than 20 years and there were no fire rings nearby, he noted.
“Now I see the possibility that the fire rings will be brought to me,” he said.
If the fire rings are brought to his neighborhood, it’s a taking, he said. It may not meet the legal definition of a taking, but it is a taking, in a very real sense, Henn said.
“It is a taking of the clean, healthful air I’ve enjoyed for 21 years, like it was when I bought the house. It’s a taking of the quiet enjoyment of my home in the evenings, like it was when I bought my house 20 years ago. And, no doubt in my mind, it’s a taking of value from my property for a fire ring to be brought to me,” Henn explained.
He encouraged city staff to direct the CCC on preventing the spread of the fire rings beyond the existing footprint.
“Please do not allow the spread of these rings,” Henn said. “Please make sure that the rings that we have burn as cleanly as possible.”
On the other side of the issue was 30-year resident Scott Robinson, President of the Central Newport Beach Community Association.
Robinson supported keeping the fire rings in the same location, saying the community has been fine with them for decades.
“Our feeling is, they’ve been there for many, many years, there have been no complaints until recent years for which reasons are multiple and sometimes very confusing,” he said.
To maintain the integrity and ambiance of the community, they should remain in the same spot and remain wood burning, Robinson noted.
They can’t be put back into the old configuration and still be wood-burning, Kiff later replied, it wouldn’t comply with the AQMD rule. The CCC staff has also stated that they want to see a 60-ring plan.
Coastal Commission staff has said that a charcoal only plan is not acceptable, Kiff added.
They are public beaches and the Coastal Commission has the say over what goes on those beaches, Kiff said.
And what the CCC chooses may not be what the council or the residents want, Curry noted.
“It’s been an absolute mess,” since the January meeting, he said, adding it’s been an “ecological, social and health disaster on the beach.”
It was “rammed through” and the plans were never properly discussed, he said. Nor was there was proper public input or consideration from the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission, Curry added.
The rings have been reverted back to wood and city staff sent seven plans, including one council-recommended 60-ring wood burning plan, to the California Coastal Commission.
Although whether or not council truly approved that has been hotly debated and the minutes from that meeting were the subject of an intense discussion at the Jan. 27 meeting.
“I certainly did not vote on a plan that included 60 fire rings,” said Councilman Tony Petros during Tuesday’s meeting.
The experts have stated that spacing them out 100-feet apart will remedy the health issues when they are 700 feet from a residence, Petros said, which is why he supports a 30-ring plan that spaces the rings out.
But the problem started way before January, said Councilman Scott Peotter, an outspoken supporter of bringing the wood-burning fire rings back.
The move to try and get rid of them entirely from a past council got them to where they are at now, Peotter said.
“We have to fix a screw up from the previous council,” Peotter said. “And we’ve got to come up with a solution that pacifies two stupid huge bureaucracies, the AQMD and Coastal (Commission), while still trying to make sure our citizens aren’t impacted anymore than they need to be.”
Then the AQMD decided to jump into it and came in with “arbitrary” survey equipment and came up with “arbitrary” results, Peotter said.
“And, I’m sorry, charcoal doesn’t work,” he added.
“If I could just put it back all in the same place and not have this thing start like it did two/three years ago, I’d love to do that,” he added. “The ADA plan comes as close as we can to that. And the bonus is we get to provide accessibility to all of our fire rings. I’m very happy to see that.”
For more information and to read about the plans, visit newportbeachca.gov.