Corona del Mar Today: Council will decide whether to remove fire rings

The Newport Beach City Council on Tuesday will decide whether the city should remove 60 beach fire rings because of health and safety concerns — the same night that thousands of visitors at Big Corona State Beach will be marking the Persian New Year with a ritual jump across a blazing fire.

The City Council in September asked that the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission study beach fire rings and make a recommendation about whether they should be removed. On Feb. 7, the commissioners voted 4-3 for removal.

The rings at Big Corona State Beach annually draw thousands of visitors celebrating Persian New Year with food, family reunions and bonfires. Jumping over a flame cleanses the jumper by giving sickness to the fire and is an ancient tradition based on a story of an old Persian king, last year's participants said.

The fires are fine for once-a-year visitors enjoying Persian New Year or a Scouting event, several opponents have said.

But the year-round smoke is a health hazard for nearby residents, many have told city officials.

"Nineteen members of the public (at last month's parks commission meeting) spoke in favor of removing the fire rings and cited health related concerns including child safety, air quality hazards related to smoke, the presence of toxic fumes, burning embers floating in the air, the burning of hazardous materials in the rings, Air Quality Management District restrictions that now ban fireplaces in new housing developments as a result of burning wood impacts, and the related risks of cancer," according to a staff report included with the agenda. "No members of the public spoke in favor of retaining the fire rings."

The council will consider the commission's recommendation and then give direction to staff, who would have to obtain coastal permits and work with the California Coastal Commission before removing any pits.

Big Corona State Beach has 27 concrete fire rings, and the Balboa Pier area has 33 rings. If the rings are removed, clean up would include cleaning the sand and minor backfilling to restore the beach surface, the staff report states.

City officials have received numerous letters and emails, some saying that the fire rings should stay.

"The Fire Rings have been a part of this Beach community and many Family's memories for the last 60 years," Corona del Mar resident Mark Simon wrote in an email. "I dare say that all of the folks that voiced their opinion against the Fire Rings knew full well they were there at the Beach when the bought or leased their affected properties."

Other letter and email writers said the rings should be removed because of the smoke and mess. One letter from the Breakers Drive Homeowners Association president, Daniel J. Leonard, said that homeowners who lived near the beach were concerned about smoke causing illnesses, soot and dirty air, children being hurt on hot ashes and crime.

"The fire rings attract individuals who are involved in gang activities and their sole purpose is to cause trouble including fights requiring police response," he wrote. "Now is the time to clean our air, not only for local residents but also for all people enjoying the beaches."

A staff report presented to the parks commissioners stated that other options, such as limiting fuel to cleaner-burning sources like Duraflame logs or limiting the hours that fires are permitted.

One commissioner suggested looking into whether the fire rings could be converted to gas, and another commissioner suggested an air quality study be conducted before the rings were banned.

Council members first discussed banning fire rings 2009 but tabled the discussion because it was taking too much staff time when budget concerns were a growing problem. In September 2011, Mayor Nancy Gardner suggested that the parks commission reexamine the rings, partly because of a claim filed against Huntington Beach after a boy was burned at a fire ring there.

At one point, a Facebook group in support of keeping the fire rings had more than 1,800 members. Facebook retired the group, and a new version currently has 18 members, including this reporter who joined the group to learn about updates.

"What can I can say?" said the group's creator, Nadine Turner, when asked about the fire rings' future. "The NIMBYs are going to get their way and the old Newport is sliding away."

The Corona del Mar Residents Assn. board discussed fire rings at its February meeting, deciding the issue needed more public input; read our story here.

* Buck Gully trail opening delayed

The Upper Buck Gully Trail opening has been delayed until next month while city crews wait for four pedestrian bridges to be constructed and delivered, officials confirmed.

The looped trail path begins at Fifth and Poppy avenues and will connect to San Joaquin Hills Road. In December, crews began cleaning the paths and installed footings for the bridges, which would allow for safer pedestrian crossing over the creek as well as protect plant life.

City officials hoped the path would be open to the public by February, but there were delays in the delivery of the bridges. The bridges are being contracted offsite and will be dropped by helicopter in early April, said Robert Stein, an assistant city engineer.

The trail should be open later in April with a grand opening ceremony to take place in May, he said.

The trail project is managed by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, and the California Conservation Corps is doing some of the work. The project will cost $180,000, with about half paid for by grants and the rest paid with funds from the Buck Gully erosion project. Funds from the erosion project also will cover $185,000 to be paid for maintenance of the trail, which will be overseen by the IRC.

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CdM enclave construction OKd

Following state approval of plans last week, construction of a Corona del Mar Middle School enclave could begin in summer, a school board member said at a recent Corona del Mar Middle and High School PTA meeting.

"Yesterday we got approval to start work on the enclave," Trustee Karen Yelsey said. "We'll start work in the summer."

The state's Department of Architecture has not yet approved plans for a new theater, although that approval is expected soon, Yelsey said.

The theater and enclave projects are part of Measure F, which voters approved in 2005. The theater project is expected to cost about $18.9 million, and the enclave has a budget of $23.2 million, district officials said last year.

Crews worked over the summer, demolishing a building and laying pipes and electrical conduits, but work stopped while state architects reviewed the plans. Last fall, a district official said he hoped that construction would resume by January.

If construction begins this summer, district officials said the construction should be complete by December 2013.

The enclave will create a campus-within-a-campus designed to give middle school students a place removed from older students.

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Delay for Marguerite signal

Plans to add a dedicated left-turn signal from Marguerite Avenue onto East Coast Highway have been delayed until fall, city officials confirmed this week.

"It got too tight for comfort," said Brad Sommers, a Newport Beach senior civil engineer. "Any little hiccup and we'd be into summer."

Currently, there are left-turn signals for motorists on East Coast Highway turning onto Marguerite Avenue, but not for motorists on Marguerite, who must yield to Coast Highway traffic.

The project will include a countdown signal for pedestrians. Originally, city officials said they hoped to have the project complete before this summer.

Getting parts for the project could take up to 12 weeks, Sommers said, and the project itself is complicated and could close parts of East Coast Highway during construction.

"Traffic delays are possible, and we don't want that during the summer season," he said.

The project will go out for bid after City Council approval in a few months.

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