Council decision removes fire rings at beaches

Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff met with staff Wednesday to discuss the next steps after the City Council voted to remove fire rings at local beaches, an official said.

The council voted Tuesday unanimously and without any debate to ask staff to remove the city's 60 rings because of safety and air quality concerns.

But it will take several months — and California Coastal Commission approval — before the rings are gone.

"We'll consult with both the Coastal Commission and state parks," said Laura Detweiler, the city's recreation and senior services department director. "It's probably a couple of weeks' process to pull all the pieces together."

Removing the rings would only take a couple of days and would be done by a regular beach maintenance crew, she said. Corona del Mar has 27 concrete fire rings, the Balboa Pier area 33.

Coastal Commission permission likely will take months, coastal staff said.

"It's going to take some time," said Fernie Sy, a commission coastal program analyst. "It's not a simple dock on someone's house. There's a bigger impact on this project. It's an amenity for the public."

Before issuing a permit, a full, public Coastal Commission hearing would be held, he said. Scheduling a hearing usually occurs between eight and 12 weeks after a permit is received, Sy said, in order to give coastal staff time to review and create a staff report.

The council's vote followed an hour-long public hearing, with most of the 29 speakers testifying in support of removing the rings.

"Before I go to sleep at night, I put my face in front of the purifier to remember what clean air smells like," said Charles Farrell, a Balboa Peninsula residents who said he has 15 fire pits directly in front of his home. "It's the plastic smell that makes me sick … I am a victim of slow asphyxiation."

A lifelong Newport Beach resident and Hoag Hospital pulmonologist, Ryan Klein told council members that the smoke aggravates asthma and other chronic lung diseases. Some residents of Breakers Drive above Big Corona said family members could not visit because the fire ring smoke aggravated their lung diseases. And others expressed concern about crime, injuries and floating embers that could cause a fire.

Other residents expressed desire to keep the rings, perhaps with limits on what kind of fuel is burned or with a reservation and payment system that would pay for fire ring-specific park rangers.

Sisters Sophia, 11, and Vanessa Koop, 9, spoke in favor of keeping fire rings.

"We like the fire rings," Sophia said.

"Say we go swimming and it gets cold — how will we warm up?" Vanessa said.

A few Parks, Beaches and Recreation commissioners, who voted 4 to 3 in support of the fire ring ban at a meeting last month, also spoke at the hearing. Commissioner Kathy Hamilton described the dangers of the rings, while Commissioner Roy Englebrecht described air quality tests he conducted with rented equipment that showed high levels of air pollutants at the rings that were not present 300 and 500 feet away.

Mayor Nancy Gardner thanked those who spoke and said it helped form her opinion. Councilman Mike Henn moved to accept the staff's recommendation to remove the rings, and all seven council members voted unanimously without any further discussion.

The audience applauded after the vote, and Wednesday some residents praised the decision.

"I thank Mayor Gardner, the City Council and staff for their review of the research and studies about wood smoke health effects, and for making this ethical decision," said Barbara Peters, a Breakers Drive resident who has regularly testified about the dangers of wood smoke. "So many people voiced their concerns, and they were heard."

Others expressed dismay at the speed of the council decision.

"We were surprised by how quickly the council took action following the [Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission's] recommendation, leaving little time for the resident outreach that we agreed to do at our February board meeting," Corona del Mar Residents Assn. President Karen Tringali wrote in an email. At that meeting, the group agreed to use a mailer to the 92625 ZIP code and an April town meeting as opportunities to explain the issues to Corona del Mar residents.

An online petition asking to stop the Coastal Commission from removing the rings had 319 signatures Wednesday afternoon. Others against the removal of the fire rings have left comments on Facebook and online publications, some urging political change.

Longtime fire ring supporter Nadine Turner said removing the fire rings would affect non-Newport Beach residents who likely were unaware that the matter was being considered.

"It's just very sad," she said Wednesday. "Newport Beach is not what it used to be. It's turning into a country club. Pretty soon the only people who will be able to enjoy the beachfront are those who live there. I'm looking at the whole thing and asking, 'Do I still want to stay here?'"

amy@coronadelmartoday.com

Twitter: @coronadelmartdy

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