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Panel delays vote on fire rings

March 06, 2013|By Jill Cowan

SAN DIEGO — Newport Beach residents holding their breath about the fate of the city's beach fire rings will have to wait a bit longer to exhale.

The state Coastal Commission decided Wednesday to delay a decision on whether the city can remove 60 fire rings scattered around Corona del Mar and the Balboa Pier. Commissioners put the decision on hold after it came to light that the South Coast Air Quality Management District will consider in May whether to restrict fire pits.

While a commission staff report had recommended rejecting the city's application because removing the fire rings would eliminate a free form of recreation, thus limiting public access to the beach, the city has contended that smoke from the rings poses a significant public health risk.

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Furthermore, city staff members told commissioners Wednesday at the Bahia Resort Hotel in San Diego that the heavy smoke actually impeded beach access for a significant portion of the population — people with asthma, pregnant women and older adults.

Instead, city staff proposed a number of replacement amenities, such as volleyball courts, playgrounds and covered seating areas, all of which, City Recreation and Senior Center Director Laura Detweiler said, would actually "improve public access" by "maximizing opportunities," and allowing beachgoers and neighbors to "breathe healthy air."

But commissioners said they were tasked with upholding the state's Coastal Act, which in the case of the fire rings, is a matter of public access first.

The proposed replacement amenities wouldn't be enough of a draw for anyone but Newport residents, Commissioner Esther Sanchez said.

"This is really a way of controlling the public," she said. "The suggestions that have been made about what kind of recreation activities that could be put in place are really geared toward local residents."

Still, commission Chairwoman Mary Shallenberger said, "We don't want to get at odds with public health when it's at odds with access."

The AQMD exempts beach fire rings from its restrictions of wood-burning devices, but at a meeting later this year, the South Coast board is expected to consider eliminating that exemption.

In its Coastal Commission application, the city cited an AQMD rule banning the installation of new wood-burning stoves or other devices because they create particulate matter that can exacerbate respiratory health problems.

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