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Tuesday, April 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Beach Bonfire Ban Has Californians Smoking

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - Southern California's air quality regulator banned bonfires on Newport Beach for "political reasons," not to improve air quality, the nonprofit Friends of the Fire Rings claims in court.

Friends of the Fire Rings sued the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Orange County Superior Court.

It claims amendments of the board's rules violate the federal and state constitutions and the board's own rulemaking procedures.

The ban on fire rings on Newport Beach is "not rooted in a concern regarding air quality" but is all about politics, the group says.

Newport Beach has 60 fire rings.

More than four years ago, Newport Beach politicians began railing against beach bonfires, claiming they encourage people to litter and to stay on beaches until all hours.

The City Council voted unanimously last year to take action to remove the rings, and applied to the California Coastal Commission for permission to get the job done.

But the commission found that removing the fire rings would violate the California Environmental Quality Act and the Coastal Act, so the city put the kybosh on its application, according to the Friends' 37-page lawsuit.

The city fared better with the Air Quality Management District, where California Coastal Commissioner William Burke sat as a board member. Burke "spearheaded" the amendments banning fire rings, comparing fires on city beaches to "carpet bombings in Vietnam," the Friends say in the complaint.

Advocates of the fire rings say the regulations trample on a longstanding Southern California tradition. But beachfront residents have complained about the bonfires' impact on their health.

Friends of the Fire Rings claims the air quality board banned beach bonfires "not for any legitimate air pollution control reason, but for political reasons, at the request of a person or persons interested in removing the Newport Beach fire rings, who was concerned that the Coastal Commission might deny same."

The July ban prompted a public backlash as well as condemnation from state and municipal officials, who claimed the ban had more to do with keeping wealthy beachfront residents happy.

Shawn Nelson, an Orange County supervisor who opposed the restrictions, said at the time that the fire rings were not a health hazard.

"We stuck our nose where we really have better places to put it," Nelson told the Los Angeles Times.

Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, added: "This is not about particulate matter, this is not about dirty air at the beach. What this is about is a small group of landowners that don't want the public to access their beaches."

But one resident told the air quality board that pollution from the fires was sometimes so bad he had to close his windows.

Air district official Philip Fine claimed that pollution from one beach fire ring "is the equivalent of gathering around the exhaust of three diesel trucks," and that 30 fire rings emit as much particulate pollution as a large oil refinery, according to the July 12 article in the Times.

Friends of Fire Rings claims the ban is politically motivated, as evidenced by revised provisions to the rules, which placate cities that want to keep beach fires.

Finagling language in the revised rules to allow beach fires that are 700 feet or more away from residences, while keeping rings 100 feet apart, allows Huntington Beach to keep beach fires, the group says.

"For no apparent scientific reason," the Friends say, private beaches do not have to comply with the ban.

The group claims the ban is "not even-handed" has no "rational basis" and bans fires in one place "while allowing the same activity in another location."

And it claims the ban deprives its beachgoing members of "low-cost entertainment" and access to beaches.

The Friends seek an injunction, civil penalties, damages and costs.

It is represented by Melinda Luthin of Corona del Mar.

South Coast Air Quality Management District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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