It couldn’t wait – it had to be dealt with at the first council meeting of the year.
A Newport Beach City Council with 4 new members was sworn in last month. Three of the new members campaigned on “Bring Back the Fire Rings”. Like catnip for any elected official, wood burning fire pits on the beach is a favorite tradition, many uninformed voters say, so it was the perfect rallying cry during the election cycle.
The public got what it wanted Tuesday night as the City Council voted 5-2 to eliminate the cleaner burning charcoal-only policy. Soon fire pits will be rearranged 100 feet apart as the Air Quality Management Board regulation calls for, or 50 ft as some advocate, then the wood burning will begin again.
Yes, it’s a major setback for those who must breathe the toxic wood smoke. It’s a public health disaster for anyone who even visits the beach, but most beachgoers either don’t know or don’t care about the adverse health effects.
In the Council chambers it was all about fun – health concerns be damned. Of course, many of the speakers at the podium wanted to point out the real reason for the debate – the old red herrings of racism and class warfare were well represented in their remarks. Our opponents pulled out all the stops to bury our plea for clean air.
The planned layout for wood burning fire pits at Big Corona – within 700′ of homes they must be spaced 100′ apart. Toxic bonus: 6 pits will be squeezed in at the 700′ boundary
This issue came to life just a few years ago when a previous City Council voted unanimously to remove all 60 beach fire pits. Doing so required Coastal Commission permission and it may be hard to remember back that far, to a more optimistic time, but then Coastal Commissioner and Chair of the AQMD, Dr. William Burke took the issue off the table by referring it to his agency with the ultimate jurisdiction for air quality. But that was then…
Our string of good luck included the first-in-the-nation fire pits regulation and here at the end, that’s all we have – fire pits within 700 feet of resident homes must be spread out 100 ft apart. That’s all we get. As you can see in the map above, City Manager Dave Kiff working with Councilman Scott Peotter came up with a configuration that not only complies with the regulation, but sneaks a few fire pits even closer to nearby homes. There was no need to include any resident input, after all pity poor Newport Beach, caught between the titans of the Coastal Commission and the AQMD – there just wasn’t a way to incorporate any resident input.
As the crowd assembles, minutes before the Council session begins surprise guests arrive – AQMD Chief Scientist, Dr. Fine and general counsel Kurt Wiese — it was like seeing the Calvary come to the rescue, but their presence would not change the outcome.
I had the satisfaction of being the first to the podium to protest this fiasco. PowerPoint slides and some witty commentary focused on the health effects would move no one. Comparisons to cigarette smoking, which ironically, you cannot smoke one on the beach, while equating the fire pits to the secondhand smoke of 800 cigarettes proved easy to ignore. My punchline would be – now that you know, it’s unethical.
According to the AQMD each fire pit is equivalent to
the secondhand smoke of 800 cigarettes per minute
Of course, like any budding political activists we were counting votes – we knew we would lose.
In the days prior, between Barbara and I we had met face to face with 4 council members and spoken on the phone with Mayor Ed Selich. “Focus on the new members,” was his advice, but it turned out to be a deflection. When the final vote was taken we had one new council member breaking ranks in our favor, but Selich voted against us.
We knew the odds were stacked against us, but to lose the Mayor’s vote really stung as he was part of the original unanimous vote.
We had a day to lick our wounds then this morning it’s time for the monthly meeting of the local residents association – Barbara sits on the board. Knowing the Mayor often attends, she was ready to confront him. He mumbled his reasons for voting against public health, saying it would never pass Coastal Commission scrutiny. That’s political expediency and very efficient use of staff time, too, but by abandoning us we’ll never have a hearing with Coastal. Sweeping aside his feeble justifications, Barbara continued her rebuke, “Why did you vote for a plan that defies air quality experts?” That’s unethical.
Speaking of our local residents association, their support for our plight was anemic. Like most cross sections of the community, they didn’t want to hear our health concerns. They want more parking and less traffic congestion. We brought a complaint with moral and ethical challenges, looking for support from our neighbors. We would walk away empty handed.
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