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Balboa Island shop faces flap over sending its ‘mermaids’ to the beach

A mermaid from Once Upon An Island entertains two kiddie mermaids on the Balboa Island beach near the business.
(Courtesy of Heather Burbich)

Troubled by an anonymous complaint about her business to the city of Newport Beach, Balboa Island resident and entrepreneur Heather Burbich took to the social media platform nextdoor.com for answers.

Her Agate Avenue store Once Upon An Island, also known as “the mermaid shop,” has been a charming part of the Balboa Island community since 2015. The mermaids have become a familiar sight to island residents as they often venture outdoors to take photos and play with children on the sand.

The character driven events and parties were customarily held inside the shop but were moved outside to satisfy parents’ safety concerns during the pandemic.

“Our clientele is more interested in being outdoors right now,” Burbich said.

Mini mermaids sit on Balboa Island seawall during an outdoor summer event held by Once Upon An Island.
(Courtesy of Heather Burbich)

The shop owner said her aim in making the post to nextdoor was to rectify the problem. It was an appeal to her neighbors — and hopefully the complainant — to contact her with any concerns they may have about her business activity on the beach so that she could make adjustments.

Instead of objections, she unexpectedly received overwhelming support, in the way of over 200 responses, including a group message from Balboa Island merchants.

“We’re very very lucky to have such wonderful family fun in our neighborhood!! They bring joy and special memories to our children,” posted one of the individuals who saw Burbich’s post.

Balboa Island resident Sheryl Clough said her 5-year-old granddaughter came from Los Angeles with her friends to celebrate her birthday party with the “mermaids” recently.

“The parents all commented that they didn’t realize how much they all needed a day out like that...watching their kids and the joy on their faces,” said Clough. “Being out in the air and seeing the kids run around was good for the parents’ souls as well as the kids.”

Burbich felt that because the events were small — never more than eight people at a time and more typically just two children and a “mermaid” — that they weren’t intrusive.

“We make sure that the beach that we use is mostly empty and always talk to bay-front neighbors beforehand to make sure they are OK with us being in front of their house,” explained Burbich. ”We always clean up afterward.”

But beach activity became an obstacle when a code enforcement officer paid a visit to her store in June to follow-up on the complaint the city had received. According to Burbich, the officer at first determined that mermaids sitting on the beach with kids was fine but setting up tables and umbrellas was considered “doing business on the beach” and not allowed.

Applying the guidelines set forth by the code enforcement officer they made some adjustments by way of letting parents do the equipment setup. A month later the officer stopped by again to report that someone was still complaining.

“I explained to him that our clients are really feeling safer outdoors,” said Burbich. “And that we would come to them only as the entertainment. He said, ”OK” as long as we were not the ones doing the set-up.”

But then in September a $200 citation came in the mail. Burbich said that the way code enforcement officer explained it, the escalation of the complaint and inclusion of photos about “mermaids” being on the beach in any capacity with kids would increase the fine every time a photo is sent.

“Mermaids can’t be on the beach at all,” said Burbich.

A mermaid from Once Upon An Island entertains a child mermaid on the Balboa Island beach near the business.
(Courtesy of Heather Burbich)

According to Burbich, the code enforcement officer reduced the citation to a warning since he had previously given the OK to be on the beach and suggested that Burbich apply for an emergency use permit.

Upon visiting city hall, she was told that the city stopped issuing emergency use permits in August. She said she was informed there were no permits for vendors on the beach at this time.

With their option being taken away by offering outdoor parties on the beach a few steps from their store, Burbich and her employees felt left out in the cold by the city, especially since there have been so many adjustments made for other businesses during the pandemic.

“Sitting on the beach with a mermaid is such a magical and unique thing for kids. We’re definitely not causing any harm or hazard by doing this,” said Burbich. “It’s very disheartening and yet another COVID blow for a small business. We’ve already faced so many hurdles through this pandemic.”

Newport Beach’s public information officer John Pope responded to a request for the city’s stance with a statement.

“The city responded to a complaint from a resident regarding commercial activity (costume parties) by a local business on Balboa Island beaches,” Pope said in the statement. “Upon investigation, the city determined that the business was operating without a permit, in violation of the municipal code 11.04.070 requires a permit for beach and park activities.

Heather Burbich, owner of Once Upon An Island on Balboa Island, at her shop.
Heather Burbich, owner of Once Upon An Island on Balboa Island, wants the option of using the beach for her clients’ safety. The city does not permit such use.
(Susan Hoffman)

“The city does not permit this type of business activity on beaches, as they must be made available for the public’s use, per City Council policies. The city does issue permits for similar commercial business activities in municipal parks, and we have suggested to the business owner that they may wish to pursue that option.”

According to the Newport Beach City Council policy governing use of the beaches titled “Bike, Foot Race and Surf Contest Event Policy,” permitted activity is restricted to a limited number of surf, surf-related and sandcastle contests outside of the peak summer season.

“If the city said yes to this business, it might have to say yes to other commercial businesses that residents might find objectionable,” Pope said.

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