At last, California Coastal Commission says Newport Beach may keep its fire rings

Newport Beach gets to keep 64 fire rings: half wood-burning, half charcoal-burning

It's taken a few years, but it finally looks as if Newport Beach will get to keep its beachfront fire rings.

The California Coastal Commission on Thursday gave the city permission to reconfigure 64 fire rings, allowing half of them to burn wood and the other half to burn charcoal.

The vote ended about two years of debate among Newport Beach residents, city leaders and other government agencies over the placement and number of the rings.

"It's a big weight off our shoulders," Newport Beach Mayor Edward Selich said. "The whole situation hasn't been good for the dynamics of our city."

One of the main issues has been whether the rings should burn wood or charcoal.

Several residents who live near the fire rings urged the commission to continue the charcoal-only policy, citing respiratory problems and carcinogens stemming from wood smoke.

But others rebuffed the idea of sitting around a charcoal-burning fire pit on a chilly evening.

"Nobody wants to huddle around a Weber," Balboa Peninsula resident Mike Glenn said.

The commission voted 9 to 1 to authorize the city's permanent plan, which includes 16 wood-burning and 16 charcoal-burning rings in the Balboa Pier area and eight wood-burning rings at the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina.

Commissioner Mark Vargas dissented on grounds that he didn't want to reduce the number of wood-burning rings.

"We're not just talking about the city of Newport Beach, we're talking about the public that comes here," he said. "This will be a severe limit on the traditional way Southern California residents enjoy these beaches."

The challenge over how to configure the fire rings was sparked in July 2013, when the South Coast Air Quality Management District voted to require a 700-foot buffer between bonfires and homes and to designate "no-burn days" when fine particulates are at unhealthful levels.

The policy is the result of an initial proposal that would have banned all beach bonfires in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

In response, Newport Beach began enforcing an ordinance that limited fuel in fire rings to charcoal, which the AQMD considers cleaner-burning than wood.

But the Coastal Commission did not approve of the change, saying charcoal is more expensive than wood and might deter people from using the rings.

Newport Beach has been stuck in the middle.

Commission staff said Thursday that although a charcoal fire ring experience is not the same as a traditional wood bonfire, the city is trying to keep fire rings a low-cost recreational activity under the mandates of the California Coastal Act while also complying with the AQMD's rule that the rings be spaced far enough apart that they don't affect air quality.

The AQMD indicated it approved of the city's plan.

"It's a reasonable compromise," Commissioner Greg Cox said.

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