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Council moves forward with process to re-install wood-burning fire pits at Aliso Beach

By SARA HALL

Council last week unanimously agreed to move forward with the process of installing wood-burning fire pits at Aliso Beach, but highlighted that there are still several issues to work out before it returns to them for the final decision.

Councilmembers voted 5-0 on October 24 to direct staff to proceed with the appropriate Coastal Development Permit process for purposes of installing wood-burning fire pits at Aliso Beach. The action also approved replacing the light pole and install an observation camera and appropriate $35,000 from the South Laguna Fund for the purchase.

Mayor Bob Whalen said he’s inclined to proceed with the recommended actions, although there are some issues that were raised and need to be addressed when the ordinance returns to the council. Primarily, it might be prudent to look into whether or not city staff is needed on site during the time that the wood burning fire pits are in use, he said. They should also flesh out the language about the conditions that would need to be present and the discretion that the fire official will have to prohibit burning.

“(This is) a request of staff to be sure when that comes back those kinds of operational details are thought about and addressed,” Whalen said.

Since this item only proposed fire pits on the south end of the beach, near the concession stand, Councilmember Alex Rounaghi added that it would also be worthwhile (down the line, not part of this process), to look at if it’s possible to bring back the fire pits near the parking lot, as suggested by a public comment. He would defer to the fire chief regarding safety and South Coast Air Quality Management District regarding air quality issues, he added.

Councilmember George Weiss wanted more information on the specific number of fire pits that are being proposed. It’s unclear if the space allows for five or 10, he noted as an example.

“It looks like we’re actually increasing the number of combustible fire pits that we’re putting in from what the county had and that’s an issue for me and for the residents, too, up top,” Weiss said. “I would like to see the council look at a maybe…a sunsetting of these wood fire pits at some point because they’re not healthy for the environment and they’re not healthy for the ocean either, when all of the stuff runs into the ocean which inevitably does during high tides.”

Gas is not a great product either, he added, noting that it produces carbon that gets released into the atmosphere.

On March 1, the city assumed ownership of and responsibility for South Laguna beaches, including Aliso Beach parking lot and concession facility, from Orange County.

The county previously allowed fire pits at Aliso Beach for public use on a first-come, first-served basis. There was also an observation camera affixed to a light pole in the parking lot to monitor activity at the beach. Some of the fire pits were lost during storm events before the city took over control, said Marine Safety Captain Kai Bond. The remaining fire pits and the camera were removed by the county before the city took over control.

Answering a council question regarding how many fire pits the county provided, Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow said it varied over the years. Some of the fire pits were washed away about four or five years ago, he recalled. During COVID, more were taken out of service, some were removed and others were buried, he explained. Most recently, when the city took over from the county, there were two that staff could verify: One buried in the sand and one open for use.

“To pick a point in time you know where there was X amount of fire pits is not quite as easy as it sounds,” he said.

During the update to council on May 16, city staff addressed a number of potential services and improvements, including fire pits. Council directed staff to return in October and follow up on certain Aliso Beach matters, Bond explained. Staff will return at a later date for the other items the council had asked about (special event permit process and program).

Last week, city staff proposed the city allow the use of wood-burning fire pits by the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Although there are some stipulations, Bond said, including that there is a “responsible person of at least 18 years of age is at least 25 feet from the burning pit.” They are also recommending that only natural wood, charcoal and fire logs are used (burning trash or debris is prohibited). The use of the wood-burning fire pits would be prohibited during no burn days or red flag days.

At this point, they aren’t proposing to have a city staffer on site to monitor the fire pits. Although they do patrol the area, a lifeguard will be on duty from 7 a.m.-7 p.m., and the city contracts with a security company to sweep and close the beach, Snow said. Police officers also regularly check the area, he added.

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“I don’t know that that’s a very complete or consistent conscientious, detailed plan for monitoring the fire pits,” Weiss commented.

Whalen also noted that they should look into whether or not city personnel should be on hand while the fire pits are in use.

The estimated cost to reinstall the wood burning firefights is approximately $15,000, Bond noted.

The next step is for the city to apply for a CDP for the installation. If approved, the city would install up to four wood-burning fire pits at the designated location.

Council moves forward with process to re install propane fire pits

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Submitted file photo

Portable propane fire pits at Aliso Beach

As part of the city taking ownership of the beaches, the city also assumed a lease with 10th Hole Associates, Inc., which leases the restaurant and concession facility at Aliso Beach (currently operated as Lost Pier). The tenant has a program that allows members of the public to rent portable propane fire pits on a first-come, first-served basis in the designated sandy area adjacent to the building, Bond said. Staff is proposing the city continue to allow the tenant to offer the rental program.

The number of gas fire pits allowed to be rented would be up to the concessionaire, Bond said.

It doesn’t seem right that the concessionaire would determine the number, Weiss said. There should be a limitation, he added.

The propane fire pits will be limited to the sandy area adjacent to the Lost Pier building, Whalen noted. That would essentially define how many can be placed there, he pointed out.

RJ Bear, director of food and beverage at The Ranch, which runs the Lost Pier, said four would be the max number rented out at any given time. They are also not allowed to be used unless there is Lost Pier staff available to oversee them. They ensure the pits are placed well above the surf line, he added. They are actively managed, Bear emphasized.

The concession stand closes about half an hour after sunset, which changes depending on the time of year. If a renter hasn’t returned the propane fire pit by that time, they collect them, he confirmed.

The fire pits they rent also have an automatic shut-off as a safety feature, Bear explained. If they get knocked over no gas is released, he said. Guests also aren’t allowed to set them up or move them, he added, that’s all done by staff.

Although an ordinance amending portions of Title 18 and 15 of the municipal code related to the use of fire was initially proposed, staff removed it from last week’s recommendations. Interim City Manager Sean Joyce said staff would like to return with the fire pit ordinance in conjunction with the Aliso Beach breach berm ordinance to ensure consistency in their respective application and terminology. The item would return to the council after they receive a CDP.

The CDP will go through the city’s administrative hearing process that will go before the community development director, explained City Attorney Megan Garibaldi. It will be a noticed hearing and the CDP is appealable, she confirmed. When it returns to council depends on how that process plays out.

Instead of creating a rental program for the city, which will create additional staff demands and processes for which the city is not currently equipped, staff is proposing a minor amendment to the city’s fire code. The change would clarify that portable propane fire pits – which are otherwise prohibited from use on the beach – are allowed in the designated area, consistent with the prior use of the property.

Regarding wood burning fire pits, the city currently prohibits building, setting, kindling, making, or maintaining a fire in any public parks or beaches except in city-designated barbecues, picnic stoves and fire pits provided for such purposes. Staff is recommending an amendment to the city’s municipal code to allow the continued use of the fire pits at Aliso Beach subject to additional regulations to comply with the South Coast AQMD regulations and the American with Disabilities Act, as well as to address local conditions at Aliso Beach.

SCAQMD passed a rule in 2013 which, in part, controls open burning at different locations, including the beach. The rule prohibits a person from “beach burning,” which means “any recreational, ceremonial, or open burning conducted in any public coastal area marked by an accumulation of sand,” unless certain conditions are met. To be allowed, the air quality forecast must be at or below specific level (PM2.5 AQI of 100 or less), and beach burning devices must be at least 700 feet from residences and 100 feet from each other (or at least 50 feet apart from one another, if there are no more than 15 devices per contiguous beach area within the city’s boundaries). Beach burning is also not allowed on a “no burn day.”

The city’s proposed ordinance has been drafted to include compliance with these requirements, including by providing the city manager with the authority to designate the locations of the fire pits on Aliso Beach (so long as compliant with the SCAQMD rule). The ordinance also provides the fire code official with the authority to identify conditions under which beach burning would be prohibited.

Council’s action last week also approved replacing the camera and light pole at Aliso Beach.

The cost to replace the camera is approximately $22,000. The light pole is in bad condition and needs to be replaced, Bond added, which would cost $13,000.

Answering a council question, Snow said that the camera won’t be manned 24/7 looking for violations. Historically in marine safety, they’ve used cameras to utilize their resources more efficiently, he explained, it’s monitored as needed.

“When we’re directed to or believe that we may have a recurring issue, we can take a look at that camera and monitor developing situations,” Snow said.

It will be a PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) camera that can rotate for a 360-degree view. It will be able to look around at the parking lot, berm and the ocean, he explained. If there is need for additional coverage in certain areas, like near the concession stand, they would return to council and propose a second camera, Snow added.

It also has night vision ability, Bond added.

During public comment, resident Billy Fried, who co-founded the full moon drum circle which utilized the fire pits for many years, agreed that the number under the county has been fluid over the years.

“We’ve seen them come and go,” he said.

Although there has usually been four along the parking lot and two in the south area, he added. Four is a good start for the city, Fried said, although it will still create a demand problem. People arrive at dawn and squat all day long to save the coveted fire pits, he pointed out.

While staff mentioned that they would all be located on the south end, where there’s more sandy real estate, Fried suggested the council be open minded and consider solutions at how they might be able to replace the few along the parking lot. They could possibly construct a berm which would help with the flooding that occurs when the tides are high at Aliso Beach, he said.

He was also opposed to the propane idea for the public pits. It smells and they should be trying to reduce their reliance on gas, he said. The concession rental program, which is only during the day, isn’t regulated by the city and people are charged a fee to use them, he added.

“(It) should be in the benefit of the community. It’s a birthright living in Orange County to have these fire pits,” Fried said.

Another speaker requested a fair system to reserve the fire pits.

Although not everyone was on board with the wood-burning pits. A few local residents who live near Aliso Beach spoke up with concerns about the smoke and potential wildfire risk, as the area is in a very high fire hazard severity zone.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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