Thursday, June 13, 2024

City Rescinds Ban of Beach Fires on South Beach; Propane Fires to be Allowed

The change in policy came in the midst of concerns that the California Coastal Commission would not approve a full ban.

In light of feedback that the California Coastal Commission may not approve a ban on beach fires on South Beach, the Coronado City Council has scaled back its new ordinance.

Now, instead of a full ban of beach fires on the narrow strip of sand in front of the Coronado Shores condominiums, fires will be permitted, but only if they are fueled by propane.

Rules for beach fires elsewhere will remain unchanged: Beachgoers can build fires in personal or city-provided fire rings, provided that wood-fueled fires use clean-burning wood as opposed to materials like pallets.

The Coronado City Council voted in April to ban fires on the beach in front of the Coronado Shores after residents complained of smoke pollution in their units. That decision came as a compromise after a previous decision to restrict fires to Coronado’s eight city-provided fire rings sparked debate.

The April policy was a compromise between two vehement stances: Those who said beach bonfires are an iconic part of life in California and those who said the smoke from fires is inundating their homes and harming their health and the environment. Council members at the time tried to preserve access to fires on wider stretches of beach that are not as close to residences. Coronado boasts one of the county’s widest beaches.

However, the change was contingent on approval from the California Coastal Commission which, among other things, is tasked with preserving public access to the coast. As city staff discussed the new policy with the CCC, they were told that the new policy likely would not be approved.

So, at a June 5 City Council meeting, staff suggested that the council decide again: Keep pursuing its original ordinance change and seek approval from the CCC in the form of a Coastal Development Permit, or tweak the ordinance?

Limiting fuel source does not require a CDP or Coastal Commission approval. Once City Council holds two public readings of the changed ordinance, it will take effect.

Because propane fires burn with little to no smoke, Council ultimately voted unanimously to permit only propane-fueled fires on South Beach in effort to provide immediate relief from smoke on South Beach.

‘We Have Never Won with the Coastal Commission’

During deliberations, the council’s frustration was palpable.

“It’s causing us to re-litigate this thing as if it were brand new,” said Council Member John Duncan, who initially brought the matter before council via a Policy No. 2 request. He said that residents keep having to plead their case, despite lengthy debate that already unfolded at past meetings.

“We keep putting (residents) through this, but we already heard all these arguments when we made our policy decision,” Duncan said.

But in a sentiment that often echoes through policy meetings, the council grappled with its local control against the demands of state agencies.

“We have never won with the Coastal Commission,” City Council Member Mike Donovan said, adding that he did not feel confident that the city could win its case for a full ban on South Beach, though he did say he would support trying.

“I hate it when an outside agency has to tell us what we can and can’t do,” Donovan said. “I get what the Coastal Commission’s mission is, but to me, when they get down into this level of detail, this is just not good policy making.”

Duncan, however, questioned whether the city should assume that it could not gain CCC approval for a full ban.

“We’re making very firm conclusions based on conversations staff has had (with CCC staff),” he said, adding that he was “disappointed” that city staff brought back new options after the council had already made a decision. Council was aware when it voted to ban fires on South Beach that the decision would require Coastal Commission approval, but still opted to do so.

“We’re a policy-making body, we made a policy, and now we’re de novo on the issue?” he said. “It’s very strange to me. There was no Policy No. 9 request made by a council member to change our policy.”

Duncan said he thought that some members of the Coastal Commission, like Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre, might support Coronado’s original ordinance.

‘Immediate Relief’ for Shores Residents

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey suggested that the council change its ordinance to allow only propane fires on South Beach and then to continue pursuing a CDP from the commission for a full ban. That, he said, would allow the city to accomplish much of what its original ordinance hoped for immediately, while still pursuing its full policy change.

City Attorney Johanna Canlas affirmed that the city could limit fuel type on South Beach to provide “immediate relief” from smoke without requiring Coastal Commission approval, and then seek a CDP for a full ban.

Council debated doing so, but ultimately decided to wait to see if the propane-only policy sufficiently mitigated the problem for residents living adjacent to South Beach who are grappling with smoke.

Council also considered changing allowed fuel types at both Central and North beaches, but Council Member Carrie Downey worried the policy was becoming too muddled for beachgoers to understand – or for the city to enforce. Ultimately, the entire body agreed that the policy was becoming too complicated and confusing.

“We have tried to fix things with nobody really complaining to us about a problem,” City Council Member Casey Tanaka said, pointing out that the complaints of smoke came mostly from South Beach fires.

To complicate matters, applying for a CDP can take eight months. If the council approved an ordinance limiting fuel types for fires, it would go into effect in 30 days, after enough time passed for the council to hold two public readings of the new policy.

City staff noted that, if the council asked for a new ordinance entirely, there would not be sufficient time to draft it and hold two public readings before the end of the summer, which is peak bonfire season.

Ultimately, the council decided unanimously to move forward with limiting fires on South Beach to those fueled by propane as the fastest, simplest way to mitigate smoke pollution for Coronado Shores residents. Council also approved hiring an additional security guard to monitor North and South Beach fires, and decided against implementing a reservation system for city-provided rings due to logistical challenges.

“This doesn’t preclude us from ever (pursuing CCC approval on a full ban) in the future if we decide to,” Duncan said. “If we do this, and there’s still an issue in front of the Shores, we can pursue the CDP.”

Downey said she wanted to pursue firm data about how many bonfires are held at the city’s beaches, as well as to monitor how Central and North Beaches are impacted once people who may have held their fires on South Beach are pushed farther down the sand.

“Let’s see how this goes,” she said.

Megan Kitt
Megan Kitt
Megan has worked as a reporter for more than 10 years, and her work in both print and digital journalism has been published in more than 25 publications worldwide. She is also an award-winning photographer. She holds BA degrees in journalism, English literature and creative writing and an MA degree in creative writing and literature. She believes a quality news publication's purpose is to strengthen a community through informative and connective reporting.Megan is also a mother of three and a Navy spouse. After living around the world both as a journalist and as a military spouse, she immediately fell in love with San Diego and Coronado for her family's long-term home.Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]

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