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Newport council supports restrictions on memorial benches and other fixtures in public spaces

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Two benches with names inscribed on tribute plaques sit on a bluff facing Little Corona del Mar Beach.
(File Photo)

The Newport Beach City Council on Tuesday sent potential restrictions on city-maintained memorial benches and trees back to the parks commission for refinement, but not before questioning the appropriateness of public space being used for permanent personal tributes.

The proposed tightening came about after the city realized that donated park trees, benches and other fixtures required a significant and unanticipated amount of time and money to install and maintain.

People typically underwrite trees or benches with dedication plaques in honor of friends and family members at parks, beaches, trails and streets. Benches are the most common, and Balboa Island, which is ringed with placid harbor views, is an especially popular place, with 107 of the city’s 320 commemorative benches.

Councilman Brad Avery said he supports the donations but wants to see all gifts placed without plaques — an extension of one of the proposed changes, which is to stop placing plaques with trees but to allow them otherwise.

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Avery said there are too many of the inscriptions, that the cost to get one could be exclusionary and that the process, even with revisions, is fraught with bureaucracy.

“It’s just all the morass of these questions and staff time and the moving of benches and the squabbling I’m sure that occurs, and the sense of ownership by people of something that’s on public property that’s used by all of us,” Avery said. “Not to mention there’s sort of a graveyard quality to it.”

He said the intention is good but that donors should sponsor a fixture without putting a stamp on it. They’ll still know which one is theirs, he said.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea to donate something without a quid pro quo,” he said.

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The council suspended the donation program last year so the Parks, Beaches & Recreation Commission could work with staff to refine regulations.

Staff, like Avery, have said some areas were becoming overcrowded with placements, public rights of way were becoming heavily memorialized and the cash that donors paid — which included a 10% maintenance fee — was not covering costs. There also was no defined time period before an item was removed.

In addition to discontinuing tree plaques, proposed rules would increase the maintenance fee to half the estimated cost of upkeep over 10 years, disallow memorial language such as “In loving memory” and give the city the option to remove or replace items after a decade, especially if they’ve become worn. Public Works Director Dave Webb said opening up locations after 10 years would give people a chance to get a spot in desirable places like Balboa Island.

Benches and trees are the most widespread, but other amenities can include drinking fountains, picnic tables and barbecue grills. Costs for donors vary widely, from $1,700 to $3,300 for a bench, $1,700 for a tree and $9,000 for a drinking fountain.

Under the proposed structure, the private outlay for donations would double in many cases. A bench would go for a flat fee of $5,000, which would essentially cover the cost of a typical bench placement.

For example, a simple concrete bench with a slotted back would cost about $5,050 — $2,800 for the bench itself, plus $2,000 for maintenance and $250 for a plaque. A donor’s current price tag for that is $2,000 total.

Avery said he thought his views would be in the minority, but colleagues fell in behind him. Councilman Jeff Herdman recalled launching his sailing dinghy over the seawalls of Balboa Island as a boy, but now small boats and paddleboards don’t have much space to do that as benches crowd curbs on the island.

Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill, who initially wanted to send the policy back to the parks commission to allow donors the opportunity to renew their sponsorships, instead wanted the commission to consider Avery’s restrictions.

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Councilman Kevin Muldoon was the only vote against eliminating plaques, supporting hardscapes that remember beloved people or offer romantic tributes.

“I have a vivid imagination, so I maybe will picture what the couple was like,” he said. “I think the love stories are beautiful and they humanize one of the least alive objects, which is a city right of way.”

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