Air Quality Board Approves Restrictions on Beach Bonfires

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Air pollution regulators adopted controversial new restrictions Friday on beach bonfires amid an uproar from residents and elected officials claiming it will tarnish a treasured Southern California tradition.

The decision by the South Coast Air Quality Management District board of directors came on a 7-6 vote, with directors Shawn Nelson, Miguel Pulido, Jan Perry, Michael Antonovich, Ben Benoit and John Benoit voting against.

Directors Bill Burke, Josie Gonzales, Dennis Yates, Michael Cacciotti, Joseph Lyou, Judith Mitchell and Clark Parker voted for the restrictions.

The new policy requires bonfires within 700 feet of homes to be spaced much farther from each other, gives cities greater power to ban bonfires on their own and prohibits beach burning when the forecast calls for high levels of fine airborne particles.

The policy also includes an exemption allowing bonfire pits with  pathways over the beach to help disabled people reach them.

AQMD staff argued that beach bonfires are a major hazard to nearby residents.

“The wide scientific consensus is that wood smoke has serious health effects,” said Phillip Fine, assistant deputy executive officer for science and technology advancement.

The policy’s supporters also argued that the burning is dangerous.

“We suffer from the smoke at the fire rings,” said Corona del Mar resident Frank Peters. “The smoke comes in and settles” at the bluff.

“This has always been about only one thing: health,” added his wife, Barbara Peters.

At the same time, the proposal was met with a forceful drumbeat of objections by residents and local elected officials. 

“This is not about heath. It’s about wealth and power and influence,” said Huntington Beach resident Chris Epting. “Is this really what you want to rob the people of?”

All 17 of the elected officials or their representatives who commented were in opposition. They spanned the political spectrum.

“Don’t mess up that tradition. It ain’t broke. Please don’t fix it,” said state Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana.

The “beaches belong to all Californians, not just a bunch of wealthy landowners,” said state Sen. Bob Huff, R-Brea.

“It’s clear that there’s many other ways to work to improve our air quality,” said Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton.

“These are multimillionaire people at the beach down there who don’t want people at the beach,” said Costa Mesa Major Jim Righeimer.

“These beaches are regional, they’re for everybody,” he added. “This is exactly what large agencies with four-letter acronyms should not be involved in.”

Chairman Burke said he was surprised by the outpouring of officials’ opposition.

“I’m just amazed at the very few people who are here in support of the rule today. So numbers are on your side,” said Burke, a vocal advocate of banning the rings.

Several local officials reacted with dismay after the ruling.

“Regretfully, one neighboring county supervisor, Josie Gonzales of San Bernardino, may have been the swing vote,” wrote Supervisor John Moorlach in his daily update.

“The South Coast AQMD has clearly overstepped its bounds,” Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, declared in a statement. “This is the case of an unelected body of bureaucrats ignoring the voice of the people.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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