Bill would exempt municipal fireworks displays from Coastal Act regulation


Describing seaside fireworks displays as wholesome and patriotic, an Orange County legislator wants to prevent the California Coastal Commission from snuffing them out.

State Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point) introduced a bill last month that would exempt municipal fireworks displays from regulation under the state Coastal Act by declaring they do not constitute “development.”

The bill comes in response to increasing pressure from environmental groups to clamp down on fireworks. Environmentalists say the noise and explosive debris generated by the displays threatens wildlife and degrades water quality. In 2008, the Coastal Commission barred a fireworks show in the Mendocino County town of Gualala over concerns it was scaring away nesting seabirds. Activists challenged the decision in court, but the agency’s jurisdiction was upheld last year by a state appeals court.


“These are Fourth of July, flag-waving, apple pie American activities, and they are free for most of the public,” Harkey said. “Right now, in this economy, is not the time for a heavy bureaucracy to be reining them in.”

Harkey, whose district includes Dana Point, San Clemente and Oceanside, said the bill was designed to fend off “progressive regulatory creep” that she fears would result in more fireworks shows being shut down along the coast. She proposed a similar bill in 2009, but it never made it out of committee.

Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission, called the bill an attempt to undermine coastal protections.

“Patriotism has nothing to do with it,” Douglas said. “It’s the law that protects sensitive coastal resources that’s really at stake.”

Douglas said the commission rarely challenges fireworks displays and does so only when they pose a direct threat to wildlife, water quality or public access to the coast. He said the agency has worked with some communities, including Morro Bay, to move their displays to less environmentally sensitive areas.

Harkey’s bill, first reported by San Diego CityBeat, echoes ongoing debate over the reach of the Coastal Commission, which holds authority over a wide range of land use along the state’s 1,100-mile shoreline. The commission often riles local officials and property rights activists when it challenges local laws, building projects, beach curfews and the occasional fireworks display.


In addition to noise, smoke, sulfur and ash, fireworks emit trace amounts of copper, zinc, sulfate, nitrate and barium, which produce bright colors when burned. Many fireworks also contain perchlorate, which can contaminate water sources.

Livia Borak, an attorney for the Encinitas-based Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, opposes the bill but said environmental safeguards and the freedom to launch fireworks need not be mutually exclusive.

“We can celebrate Fourth of July and have fireworks and have them regulated,” said Borak, whose group is suing the city of San Diego over the environmental effects of the annual Fourth of July fireworks show at La Jolla Cove. ‘They can all coexist.”

If Harkey’s legislation were to pass, it would not shield fireworks shows from review by clean-water and environmental regulators, a practice that is becoming more common along the coast.

The San Diego region of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board announced last year that it would start regulating fireworks shows over ocean water in San Diego County and parts of Orange County. Permits will require fireworks operators to clean up debris and monitor for pollutants. The idea prompted Laguna Beach to seek an exemption for its Fourth of July display above a portion of coastline designated as a marine reserve.