Court refuses to block fire-ring removal

An Orange County Superior Court judge Friday refused to issue an injunction that would have barred Newport Beach from moving ahead with plans to reduce the number of fire rings on its beaches.

The move came as a battle over beach bonfires continues to play out between various regulatory agencies and in the state Legislature, with some groups calling for the wood-burning pits' removal because of smoke-related health concerns and others fighting hard to protect what they consider a low-cost Southern California tradition.

The nonprofit group Friends of the Fire Rings had asked for the emergency action in late December, saying that if the city was able to remove the fire pits, it could do irreparable damage to a resource for beachgoers.

In November, Friends filed a lawsuit against the South Coast Air Quality Management District in an attempt to negate some regulations on beach burning that the agency approved in July.

"Nothing mandates replacing fire rings if the [AQMD's regulations] are invalidated," said Corona del Mar attorney Melinda Luthin, who represented the Friends.

She stressed that the regulations constitute an "abuse of government power" under the guise of the public good.

Still, Judge Robert J. Moss said he didn't see the potential removal of fire rings as rising to the level of irreparable harm.

"I don't really see there's an emergency," he said.

Moss disclosed at the beginning of the hearing that he lives in Newport Beach and had done some work for the city when he was a practicing attorney, but he said he didn't feel that there was sufficient evidence of a conflict of interest to recuse himself from the case.

Attorneys for Newport Beach and the AQMD said the city's plans probably wouldn't be realized soon anyway.

Newport Beach City Atty. Aaron Harp said after the hearing that the city plans to apply for a coastal development permit from the California Coastal Commission — a state agency that has opposed getting rid of fire rings — before going ahead with any changes to the pits within Newport's limits.

That process, officials have said, is likely to take years.

Corona del Mar resident Frank Peters, a longtime advocate of removing the fire rings, said he and his neighbors "suffer horribly," and that this year's hot, dry winter has made their air even worse. He was pleased with the ruling.

Kurt Wiese, an attorney for the AQMD,said Moss "got it exactly right."

Luthin said she was "very disappointed in what the judge had to say."

His ruling, she said, "bought into the argument and fear-mongering of the city and the AQMD."

Luthin said she looks forward to the lawsuit's final adjudication.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World