Newport, Huntington clash over fire rings

DIAMOND BAR — An ongoing fight over beach bonfires pitted the interests of two neighboring cities against each other Thursday morning, as Huntington Beach residents asked South Coast Air Quality Management District staff members to put the kibosh on a proposed rule change that would ban open burning on all beaches in the district’s jurisdiction — or at least explore other alternatives.

The Newport Beach City Council supports removing the fire rings in Corona del Mar and near the Balboa Pier.

“There must be other ways to manage [beach burning], without outright banning it,” said Huntington Beach preservationist Mary Urashima.

District officials gathered public input Thursday in advance of a possible May 3 vote on the ban. The change, which officials proposed after the California Coastal Commission cited SCAQMD rules in its consideration of the city of Newport Beach’s application to remove its fire rings, would add beach burning to a list of prohibited open burning activities in the district’s Rule 444.

The ban was proposed in light of the district’s efforts to cut down on certain types of hazardous particulate matter in the air in compliance with state and federal rules.

Numerous Huntington Beach residents and city officials told staff that eliminating fire rings from Orange County beaches would take a big bite out of coastal tourism dollars, and that the proposed rule change banning open burning on all beaches in the district’s jurisdiction was like taking a sledgehammer to an issue requiring a fine-tooth comb.

“People don’t go to the beach in the evening to sun tan,” said Dianne Thompson, Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce chairwoman, citing an estimated $1-million loss just in beach parking revenue after 3 p.m. “This would impact us more than any community.”

Upward of half of the more than 800 fire rings that would be affected fall within Huntington Beach’s limits. Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington City Beach and Huntington State Beach account for about 500 fire rings.

Meanwhile, all of the Los Angeles County beach fire rings add up to just 90. Newport has 60. Aliso Beach County Park, between downtown Laguna Beach and South Laguna, has seven.

The potential for lost revenue played a major role in Huntington Beach’s opposition to the ban, said Laurie Frymire, a city spokeswoman. She questioned the air district’s outreach.

“Newport Beach’s city manager contacted our city manager asking for our support,” she said. “That’s how we found out about this meeting.”

Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff confirmed that he did write to Huntington Beach City Manager Fred Wilson, asking if there was “any willingness to wade into the fire ring imbroglio with us.”

Frymire and others left no doubt, however, that Huntington fell on the opposite side of the issue from Newport.

John Ehlenfeldt, vice president of sales and marketing for the Huntington Beach Visitors Bureau, said one of the city’s high-end beachside resorts, the Hyatt Regency, sells between $50,000 and $60,000 worth of s’more kits a year.

Another potential risk of extinguishing the warm glow of the fire rings, said California State Parks Supt. Brian Ketterer, was a rise in crime on beaches.

“Fire offers a feeling of safety,” he said, adding that well-lit areas see less crime. “When crime rises, visitation declines.”

Representatives from the offices of state legislators Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) and Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) — both of whom serve Huntington and Newport constituents — also spoke against the proposed ban.

Outnumbered were Newport Beach residents with homes near the city’s fire rings, who asked district officials to consider the negative health impacts of wood smoke, which have been cited as the basis of the district’s other wood-burning restrictions.

“The Coastal Commission called [fire rings] a low-cost amenity,” said Corona del Mar resident Frank Peters. “Of course, the true cost isn’t borne by the people who come for a night’s enjoyment. It’s borne by long-term residents.”

Just a handful of Newport residents spoke strongly in favor of the ban. One Newport man, though, criticized Newport’s efforts to restrict beach activity.

“Newport is out of control,” Thomas Sweatt said. “It’s like a blind person swinging a mace and it landed on the fire pits.”

District Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein asked speakers whether they thought propane beach fires might serve as a suitable alternative to traditional wood fires, which generate more toxic particulate matter.

Reactions were mixed. While some said that they didn’t have a problem with the bonfires themselves — just the accompanying health risks, others questioned the feasibility of that alternative.

Newport Beach officials have said that gas or propane could pose safety risks.

“I believe that propane tanks are not a good idea — gas tanks next to kids/parents/equipment/flame and unsupervised doesn’t seem wise to me,” Kiff wrote in an email.

And some speakers wondered where the money would come from to make propane fires readily available to beachgoers.

“When you talk about propane fires,” Ketterer said, “that’s great for your utopian world, but you tell me how we’re going to pay for that.”

Ultimately, the meeting left the district with a lot to think about, said Laki Tisopulos, assistant deputy executive officer for planning and rules. He added that a postponement of the anticipated May 3 vote was certainly a possibility.

But, he said, “unfortunately, there are a number of different clocks already running.”

The California Coastal Commission has said it may take cues from the district in its decision on whether or not to allow Newport to remove its fire rings.

If it does grant Newport’s application, that could have ramifications for beaches up and down the coast, as the commission is a statewide agency.

Twitter: @JillCowan