SAN DIEGO — Newport Beach residents holding their breath about the fate of the city's beach fire rings will have to wait a bit longer to exhale.
The state Coastal Commission decided Wednesday to delay a decision on whether the city can remove 60 fire rings scattered around Corona del Mar and the Balboa Pier. Commissioners put the decision on hold after it came to light that the South Coast Air Quality Management District will consider in May whether to restrict fire pits.
While a commission staff report had recommended rejecting the city's application because removing the fire rings would eliminate a free form of recreation, thus limiting public access to the beach, the city has contended that smoke from the rings poses a significant public health risk.
Furthermore, city staff members told commissioners Wednesday at the Bahia Resort Hotel in San Diego that the heavy smoke actually impeded beach access for a significant portion of the population — people with asthma, pregnant women and older adults.
Instead, city staff proposed a number of replacement amenities, such as volleyball courts, playgrounds and covered seating areas, all of which, City Recreation and Senior Center Director Laura Detweiler said, would actually "improve public access" by "maximizing opportunities," and allowing beachgoers and neighbors to "breathe healthy air."
But commissioners said they were tasked with upholding the state's Coastal Act, which in the case of the fire rings, is a matter of public access first.
The proposed replacement amenities wouldn't be enough of a draw for anyone but Newport residents, Commissioner Esther Sanchez said.
"This is really a way of controlling the public," she said. "The suggestions that have been made about what kind of recreation activities that could be put in place are really geared toward local residents."
Still, commission Chairwoman Mary Shallenberger said, "We don't want to get at odds with public health when it's at odds with access."
The AQMD exempts beach fire rings from its restrictions of wood-burning devices, but at a meeting later this year, the South Coast board is expected to consider eliminating that exemption.
In its Coastal Commission application, the city cited an AQMD rule banning the installation of new wood-burning stoves or other devices because they create particulate matter that can exacerbate respiratory health problems.
But commission staff said in its report that the city didn't adequately demonstrate direct, local adverse health effects.
Commissioner Carole Groom said that although she saw the need to consider eliminating fire rings to protect residents from particulate matter, it was "unfortunate that the city of Newport Beach did not do any studies."
Commissioner William Burke, who also serves on the South Coast AQMD board, disagreed.
"We spent millions and millions and millions of dollars in research to find out what the cause and effect of this stuff is," he said, and it's been well established that wood smoke can lead to health problems.
He added: "I can assure you the district will take action in May."
Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff said the city would wait and see how the AQMD tackles the issue before ideally returning to the commission with an application to remove the rings in June.
"The neverending saga continues," he joked, heading out of the meeting.
Indeed, at the city level, whether the fire rings should continue to be a part of summer rituals has been the subject of intense debate for several years.
At the meeting, about a dozen Newport residents and beachgoers echoed longstanding arguments on both sides of the issue.
Nadine Turner, a longtime Newport Beach resident, said she spent many a summer working at the Big Corona and pier parking lots, and has suffered from exercise-induced asthma. The nearby fire rings never posed a problem, she said.
On the other hand, Turner has had four children and, over the years, she's "watched the things they can use" be steadily limited.
"My kids can't play a game of pick-up soccer at the park because you have to have a permit," she said.
Corona del Mar resident John Hamilton said he was recently diagnosed with emphysema, and he's been left with two options: "Move or get rid of the fire rings." He said he'd rather see the latter.
Hamilton added that nostalgia shouldn't prevent fire rings from going the way of Lucky cigarettes and riding in truck beds.
"I love nostalgia, I collect nostalgia," he said. "However, for me, the health of my fellow friends and neighbors is more important."