Newport withdraws request to pull fire rings

This article has been corrected. See note below.

In another U-turn in the long and bumpy ride that has been the fight over Southern California's beach bonfires, Newport Beach officials on Tuesday withdrew an application to remove the city's fire rings that was set to be heard by the California Coastal Commission next week.

Newport City Manager Dave Kiff wrote in a letter to commission Deputy Director Sherilyn Sarb that, "While the most sensible thing to do is simply delay the commission's consideration of our application, we understand this is not possible."

So, rather than submit "substantive amendments" to the existing request — amendments that commission staff wouldn't have enough time to thoroughly study before the commission meeting July 11 — the city opted to take back its application.

The commission, which now is not likely to discuss the issue at its upcoming meeting, postponed a decision on the application in March to allow time for regional air quality regulators to consider a ban on wood-burning fire rings affecting all beaches in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

But the panel's vote next week would have come a day before the South Coast Air Quality Management District is set to consider a proposal that an AQMD official said would give Newport — or any city or county — the authority to get rid of its fire rings.

So, if both agencies had acted according to staff recommendations, their clashing decisions would have left Newport Beach officials tiptoeing through hazy legal territory.

In a report released last week, California Coastal Commission staff again recommended keeping Newport Beach's fire rings burning, echoing reasoning from a staff report released earlier this year.

Last year, the City Council voted unanimously to remove fire rings from Newport beaches — though since then, Councilwoman Leslie Daigle has changed course, joining a fire ring support movement spearheaded by Huntington Beach residents and officials.

Removing the 60 rings from Corona del Mar State Beach and Balboa Beach would eliminate a low-cost form of public recreation, according to the commission staff report.

The AQMD's initial proposal, a broader ban than the one going before the board July 12, sparked an outcry from many Southern California residents who cherish bonfires as a decades-old tradition steeped in nostalgia.

A vote on that ban was pushed back as district staff members studied air quality near the bonfires and crafted a proposed compromise. The commission report says staff members anticipated an AQMD decision on a possible ban in June.

Last month, though, the district released its revamped proposal, which would create buffer zones meant to diffuse the effects of wood smoke on people living close to the bonfires, as well as give cities and counties more control. The proposal also includes provisions for no-burn days.

Newport officials lauded the document as a viable compromise and announced that they were working with AQMD on an alternative-fuel fire ring pilot program, in which the city would test out 10 nonwood-burning fire rings, probably fueled by propane.

Sarb had said Monday that withdrawing its application before the hearing next week, then submitting an alternative plan was one route open to the city.

"We do see the options are available," Sarb said, adding that propane fire rings are "one of them," along with limiting the fire rings' use on no-burn days, greater enforcement of existing rules regarding what can be burned in the pits and a reduction in the density of Newport's fire rings.

"We would certainly look at those options that would allow some [fire rings] to remain," she said.

Next week, however, the commission would have been bound by state law to act on the city's existing application, because the July meeting would have been the panel's last chance to act on the application within a required time period after it was first submitted.

Sarb said staff members recommended that the commission reject Newport's current application, because getting rid of all of the city's fire rings wouldn't properly align with the Coastal Act, which she said prioritizes "public access and recreation."

Kiff wrote that depending on the AQMD's decision next week, the city may submit a revised application asking that it be allowed to remove its 60 wood-burning fire rings to be replaced by the 10 alternatively fueled ones installed through the pilot program.

Sam Atwood, district spokesman, said his agency has explored the legal ramifications of the AQMD's proposed action and argues that Newport already has the authority to take out its fire rings, regardless of commission intervention.

"Our attorneys have looked at this and have done some research through outside counsel who specialize in Coastal Commission actions," he said. "We think for starters that any city and county has the ability to decide whether or not they have fire rings."

On top of that, he said, the district's proposal "adds another layer to what we think is already existing authority on the part of cities or counties," provided they officially declare the wood smoke generated by the fires a nuisance.

While Newport hasn't yet done that, he said that if the city does take that step, the AQMD rule would prohibit other agencies like the Coastal Commission from overriding it and forcing the jurisdiction keep its fire rings.

"And we believe we have the authority to do that," he said.

[For the record, 9:30 a.m. July 3: A subhead in an earlier version of this article incorrectly said the South Coast Air Quality Management District would not hear the fire rings issue. In fact, it's the California Coastal Commission who won't hear the issue as the city withdrew its application.]

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