Staff for the California Coastal Commission is recommending that the agency approve the city’s plan to provide 64 wood and charcoal fire rings on three local beaches. The commission is expected to vote on the issue Thursday at Newport Beach City Hall.
Newport Beach Mayor Ed Selich described the plan as a good compromise that won’t please everyone.
“Given the difficulty of navigating this path … I feel good that we’re here,” Selich said. “What initially seemed to be a simple problem to solve turned pretty complicated.
“This has not been good for the image of Newport Beach.”
Fire rings became a point of contention in the city three years ago, when some homeowners in Corona del Mar asked the city to remove the fire pits, saying nightly exposure to the smoke is unhealthy.
But other residents objected to their removal, calling fire pits a Newport Beach tradition.
From there, the squabble grew. Eventually, the issue of fire pits in Newport Beach was taken up by city officials, the Coastal Commission, the Southern California Air Quality Management District, state legislators and at least one regional advocacy group, Friends of the Fire Rings.
Many solutions were explored.
In 2012, the City Council sought permission from the Coastal Commission to remove the fire rings entirely, only to withdraw that request when the commission balked.
One state proposal would have protected wood-burning pits, but it died last year in committee.
Last year, the city set a plan that allowed only charcoal-burning fire pits. But the Coastal Commission ended that, telling the city that it needed a state permit to make any significant changes to the pits.
Opponents who live near the fire rings fear negative health effects of long-term, regular exposure to wood smoke. Some were willing to support charcoal fire pits.
But proponents of wood-burning pits, including members of Friends of the Fire Rings, argue that charcoal doesn’t produce a strong flame or significant light after sunset.
The charcoal vs. wood question was tested by Coastal Commission staff, according to the Coastal Commission report. Though they concluded that wood makes a better bonfire, they said charcoal isn’t worthless.
“A charcoal fire ring is not equivalent to a wood fire ring experience, but there appears to be demand – though not equivalent demand – for both options,” the report says.
Denys Oberman, a Balboa Peninsula resident who is part of the Friends of the Fire Rings group that consists of 4,500 city residents and area business owners, said the fire ring plan offers something for visitors who use the fire pits irregularly and beach residents who are concerned about environmental impacts.
The compromise is more about location than numbers.
Under the plan, 64 rings would be available in the city. That’s slightly more than the 60 pits now in the city. But some pits at current sites will be relocated, and the new pits will be added to Newport Dunes, away from most residents.
The report identifies four fire ring locations:
• East of Balboa Pier, with seven wood-burning and eight charcoal-only pits, four of which would be wheelchair-accessible.
• West of Balboa Pier, where there would be nine wood-burning and eight charcoal rings, including four with wheelchair access.
• Corona del Mar State Beach, which would have 16 wood-burning and eight charcoal-only rings, with four wheelchair-accessible.
• Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort and Marina will have eight wood-burning rings, up from four now.
Oberman said many residents will be happy if the city makes good on its promise to supervise the use of fire rings and ensure their upkeep.
As part of the plan, the city will supervise and maintain the rings at the Balboa Pier and Corona del Mar State Beach and could issue citations for anyone who uses the wrong fuel.
The beach at Newport Dunes is overseen by the county. Details of how those rings will be supervised haven’t been finalized, according to the commission report.
The city also is proposing to sell charcoal near Corona del Mar State Beach and the Balboa Pier during high-use times, usually between Memorial Day and mid-October. City staff would clean out the fire rings daily during summer months and inspect them on weekdays during the winter.
Newport Beach Mayor Selich said if the city’s plan is approved by the commission, it will need to go back to the City Council for final approval. Timing on that has not been set.
To read the commission’s full fire rings management plan, go tocoastal.ca.gov.
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