Wood, Charcoal Mix Plan OK’d by Coastal Commission

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The flames have finally settled after the California Coastal Commission approved a plan with a mixture of both charcoal and wood burning fire rings in Newport Beach.

After about 90 minutes of discussion and nearly two dozen public speakers, the CCC voted 9-1 to approve the plan, with Commissioner Mark Vargas dissenting.

The approved item was the city’s submitted Plan 17, minus the Corona del Mar State Beach portion.

The 24-ring plan for CdM was placed aside after a letter from the State Parks asked for a postponement. Instead, commissioners approved (9-1, Vargas again dissenting) an amendment allowing the city and State Parks to work out an agreement within 90 days. Any revisions to the plan need to be reviewed and approved by the CCC executive director.

Superintendent for California State Parks Eric Dymmel said they want to ultimately approve any changes or alterations to the CdM State Beach. They need more time to meet with the city and resolve the issues and concerns they have, he explained.

“We need some more time to meet with the city,” Dymmel said. The extra time would “allow us to resolve the issues at hand.”

There was some miscommunication late in the game with the state parks, said Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff, but they have a good relationship and felt the issues could be worked out.

On top of the 24 rings at CdM, Plan 17 calls for 32 rings around Balboa Pier and a total of eight at Newport Dunes. The plan  also includes several ADA-accessible fire rings.

Half of the rings surrounding Balboa Pier and all eight of the rings at the Dunes will be wood burning. If the CdM portion of the plan is approved as written, 16 of those rings will allow wood.

During the meeting, CCC analyst Erin Prahler described the beach locations and gave a brief history of the fire ring project.

It began in 2012 with an application from the city to remove them, then went through an all charcoal phase last year to accommodate the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Rule 444 until the wood-burning pits were brought back with a City Council vote in January.

This has been a long and painful process, Kiff said. Plan 17 has the approval of almost every group that has weighed in on the issue, Kiff noted, although there are still a few concerns from some parties.

A few of those concerns were raised during public comment.

Longtime CdM resident Barbara Peters said wood burning is bad for an individual’s health and the environment. And the motivation to keep the wood is for the wrong reasons, she added.

“Reject this politically driven wood burning fire rings plan,” Peters urged.

It’s using the wheelchair accessible exemption as a “political ploy” to increase the density of the fire pits, she added.

“Rise above the political noise to protect the beach going public from the harmful particulates and to protect the environment,” Peters said. “Do what’s right for the health and access of all beachgoers.”

Another Balboa Peninsula resident likened living near the fire rings to living inside an oil refinery.

The issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor, another Newporter noted. And both sides of the fence spoke out during the meeting.

Longtime local Mike Glenn said he knew about the wood burning fire rings and any possible health risks they posed before he moved to the area.

The right thing to do would be to protect the wood fire rings, he said, and this plan eliminates half of the wood pits. And to call charcoal fire pits fire rings is disingenuous, he added.

“Nobody wants to huddle around the Weber,” Glenn said.

Also in favor of saving the fire pits is Doug Swardstrom, Founder of Friends of the Fire Rings.

“Wood burning fire rings are as popular as baseball and apple pie,” he said. “They symbolize and represent a focal point of solace and solitude that we all seek. A place to be away from it all. A place of peace and quiet to reflect. (A place) to be with friends and family. There is something magical about yellow, orange and red flames dancing against a night or early morning sky.”

Swardstrom, though, supported the proposed plan.

Finding a solution has not been easy, he said, but Plan 17 is a win-win solution.

“Friends of the Fire Rings wholeheartedly supports Plan 17,” Swardstrom said.

Several speakers agreed that the plan was a reasonable compromise.

The CCC staff also concurred. Their aim has always been to find a plan that complies with both the Coastal Act and the AQMD rules with no net loss of fire rings, explained Sherilyn Sarb, CCC Deputy Director for Orange County.

“We think that’s what this alternative plan has achieved,” she added.

Commissioners were on the fence about the issue.

“I certainly support the low cost recreation on the beach and I understand that it’s a tradition here in southern California,” said Commissioner Carole Groom, but, “I have serious concerns about the health issues.”

Her concerns were with both charcoal and wood. She suggested setting up some kind of long-term air quality testing equipment.

Commissioner Mary Shallenberger agreed that it was a difficult decision.

“It’s our job… to do everything we can to maximize access to our beaches,” for everyone, particularly for low income families, she said.

She understands they are near and dear to many people’s hearts and are part of the culture of Southern California.

On the other hand, “I am totally sympathetic with those who have health issues and live near there,” she said.

She can appreciate both sides, but said it comes down to the fact that the CCC doesn’t have jurisdiction over the health concerns and she has to base her vote on what upholds the Coastal Act and allows and promotes public access.

“Do I like it? No, I personally do not,” she said, but she voted in support of it “under personal duress,” because it’s consistent with the AQMD and the Coastal Act.

Commissioner Mark Vargas decided not to support the plan because it’s a net loss on the extremely popular wood burning fire rings. Charcoal and wood burning fires are completely different, he added.

Vargas also emphasized that the issue concerns the general public, not just Newport Beach residents. People travel a long way to enjoy a beach bonfire experience, he said.

It will have a substantial impact on the public’s ability to utilize the amenities and enjoy this piece of the coast, he noted.

“This will be a severe limitation on the traditional way that California residents enjoy these beaches,” Vargas said.

For more information, visit newportbeachca.gov.

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