If you’re sitting at a city council meeting and hear the mayor proudly describe how he got the head of a government agency to write a letter threatening to take enforcement action against the city, you’re probably not really in Bizarro World or the Twilight Zone; you’re just in Carmel and the item on the agenda is beach fires.
The second first reading of an ordinance that would ban beach fires altogether was on the agenda in Carmel last week. It was the second first reading, they explained, because they’d added some whereases since the first first reading. Are you with me so far?
Anyway, Mayor Burnett opened the proceedings by passing out copies of a letter he said he had asked Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District boss, Richard Stedman, to write. The letter threatens to bring enforcement action against the City of Carmel unless the City does something to reduce the impact of smoke from beach fires on homes near the beach.
In spite of the fact that the letter was only written at his request, the Mayor still believes it demonstrates that the City really is between a rock and a hard place on this issue and simply has no choice other than to completely ban wood fires on the beach. The Mayor also hopes the letter will help convince the Coastal Commission to keep their meddling hands off the City’s business. Well, he didn’t put it exactly like that, but you get the idea.
What the Mayor didn’t mention was that, although the City and Air District have been monitoring the air near the homes closest to the fire zone on the beach since May, the only actual violation of air quality standards occurred on Sunday, September 20, a day when there were no fires on the beach. There were no fires that day because, on August 6, the City Council passed an Urgency Ordinance banning fires from Friday through Sunday. The smoke that caused the violation came instead from the Tassajara Fire, which ignited on the evening of Saturday, September 19, and was busy burning twenty structures and a thousand acres of the Carmel River watershed that Sunday.
This is not to say that smoke from beach fires isn’t a problem. Pretty much everyone agrees that if lots of fires are built on the small portion of beach where fires are still allowed on nights with little to no wind, smoke builds up to levels that no one should be expected to tolerate. What the monitoring has shown is that this doesn’t happen very often and that, even when it does happen, it happens briefly enough that air quality standards, which are based on 24 hour averages, are not exceeded. How the Air District could bring enforcement action against the City over beach fires, when beach fires have not contributed to any actual air quality violations isn’t clear.
When calculated on an hourly, rather than 24-hour basis, monitoring has found that air quality in the neighborhood adjacent to the beach is “good” an enviable 98% of the time, “moderate” 1.7% of the time, and either “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” or just downright “unhealthy” .7% of the time. These are air quality guidelines or recommendations, however, rather than enforceable standards.
Five occasions have been recorded where the air became unhealthy for sensitive groups; three Saturdays in June, one in July, and during the Tassajara Fire, in September. The only time it reached the downright unhealthy category was for a couple of hours on the 4th of July, when at least 130 fires were burning on the beach. The average number of fires on a nice Saturday night in the summer is more like 45.
What the monitoring actually measures is the amount of particles, both solid and liquid, with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers floating around in the air. This is known as Particulate Matter 2.5, or PM2.5. At its worst, on the 4th of July, the air near the Carmel Beach was found to contain 153 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter. To put this in perspective, the air in Beijing this week has been found to contain more than 900 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter.
One thing the monitoring has demonstrated quite clearly is that air quality is nearly always at its worst on weekends. Until the Council banned weekend fires, this correlated quite nicely with larger numbers of fires. Interestingly, though, even without beach fires, air pollution continues to spike upwards on weekends, suggesting that weekend visitors generating chimney smoke, operating backyard fire pits, and producing vehicle exhaust play at least as important role in degrading air quality as beach fires.
The BBQ at Bruno’s Market fills the air with delicious smelling, but no doubt hazardous, smoke. Wood smoke is pretty much everywhere in Carmel.
In spite of this, the Council has taken the position that smoke from beach fires constitutes a public health emergency requiring a total ban on wood burning on the beach. Coastal Commission staff disagree. “There appear to be many ways to address the identified problem,” they write, “but to institute a complete ban on wood beach fires at this time is not an appropriate solution, particularly considering the fact that a complete ban is inconsistent with the City’s own Local Coastal Program, which specifically allows for and encourages beach fires.”
That’s a bit of a problem. Especially since the Coastal Commission tends to see efforts to limit beach fires as efforts to exclude the disadvantaged by limiting low-cost recreational options. And the Coastal Commission will be meeting in Monterey this Friday, December 11, with Carmel’s beach fire plans on the agenda. But which beach fire plans? Here’s where it gets a little complicated.
People have been complaining for decades about beach fires darkening the white sand and attracting folks who, well… just aren’t our kind of people. Responding to these concerns the City Council, in 1995, banned fires everywhere except on the southernmost end of the beach. This area is both the easiest to patrol and an area where waves fairly regularly remove, clean, and return the sand during winter storms. They also banned the use of flammable liquids. Both these provisions were incorporated into the Local Coastal Program, which was certified by the Coastal Commission in 2004.
An unanticipated consequence of limiting fires to a smaller area turned out to be concentrating the smoke from those fires and, in the past few years, complaints about smoke have begun to eclipse complaints about sand color. Finally, in May 2015, after dozens of commission and committee meetings, the City Council, approved a three year Beach Fire Management Pilot Program. This program would limit beach fires to 26 fire rings in the current fire area; although that number could be adjusted up or down as necessary to meet demand or to preserve air quality. To avoid the rings being washed away, they would be removed in the winter – meaning fires would be allowed in summer only.
Removing things from the beach before they’re washed away is easier said than done. Witness the traffic cones placed on the beach this fall to mark the 100-foot distance from the bluff where fire’s are allowed on week nights.
At least one cone was still somewhere to be found on the beach after Friday morning’s high tide. These traffic cones, by the way, are apparently considered by the City to be less aesthetically damaging to the beach than charcoal in the sand.
Essentially, the Pilot Program would allow the City three years to experiment with and tweak a new set of regulations, before setting them in stone. Before the Pilot Program could go into effect, however, it was appealed to the Coastal Commission by a beach fire fan who thought it was too restrictive. It is this appeal which the Coastal Commission will hear on December 11.
Shortly after approving the Pilot Program, the city began air monitoring and, when it found that air pollution tended to briefly spike near or into unhealthy territory on Saturday nights during the busiest beach fire months, it declared a public health emergency and, on August 6, issued its Urgency Ordinance banning fires Thursday through Sunday and on holidays and requiring fires be built at least 100 feet from the bluffs.
As an Urgency Ordinance, this measure would have expired after 45 days, but on September 2, the Council gave it a 10 month and 15 day extension. As the City has not followed up these actions by issuing a regular Coastal Development Permit, the legality of the ordinance is questionable. The Coastal Commission is, in fact, currently tracking Carmel’s enforcement of the ordinance as a violation of the Coastal Act.
But that’s not all. On November 3, the Council held the first first reading of the new ordinance that would declare beach fires a nuisance and ban them completely; with an exception for propane fires in appropriate containers – which directly violates the Local Coastal Program prohibition on flammable liquids. After adding some new whereases, the second first reading took place last Tuesday, which brings us back to where we began.
After the Mayor shared the good news about the threat to the City from the Air District and the City Attorney explained that, in his legal opinion, the City would be sued no matter what it did, the Council got down to business.
Councilmember Ken Talmage made a motion to move the ordinance on to a second reading and approval (probably to take place in January) and the motion was seconded by Councilmember Victoria Beach. Making this motion prior to public testimony was a bit of a slap in the face to the many ordinance opponents in the audience, as it sent a pretty strong message that at least two of the five councilmembers had already made up their minds and weren’t likely to be swayed by anything the people who had taken the time to come to the meeting and testify might have to say.
Those who, later in the meeting, expressed distaste for people who slight the public process by appealing decisions they don’t like, might want to consider that people only respect the public process to the extent that they believe their point of view has received a fair hearing. Nothing encourages appeals and litigation quite like actions that leave the public process looking like a charade.
With the motion on the floor, public testimony began. Beach fire fans mostly pointed to the long history of fires on the Carmel Beach and the fact that spikes into unhealthy air quality could probably be prevented with far less than a total ban. Fire opponents mainly focused on the fact that any quantity of smoke is potentially hazardous to health.
“If you can smell it, it’s harming you.”
Banning beach fires, the Council was told, is no different from banning smoking in restaurants and bars, no different from requiring surgeons to wash their hands, and so on. Some went so far as to say the Council would be guilty of poisoning people if it didn’t impose a total ban. One implied that only irresponsible parents would allow a child to attend a campfire.
“What we did in the past is irrelevant. Now that we know how dangerous wood smoke is, we can’t pretend we don’t know or ignore it.”
When public testimony finished, Councilmember Carrie Theis was first to speak. She would not support the total ban on beach fires, she said, because it amounted to an end run on the public process that had produced the Pilot Program and was a betrayal of the compromise and deal the Pilot Program represented.
This resulted in some back and forth between the Mayor and Councilmembers, the main point of which seemed to be that the real blame for the failure of the compromise should fall on the person who appealed the Program to the Coastal Commission and that beach fire fans, due to the appeal, were essentially getting what they deserved with the total ban.
Councilmember Steve Dallas, then spoke, pointing out that there are many sources of smoke in Carmel, and wondering how the Council could declare one source a public health emergency and nuisance while completely ignoring all the others. He too favored moving ahead with the Pilot Program and rejecting the total ban.
Mayor Burnett and Councilmember Beach then explained how, while they sympathized with the tradition of beach fires, they felt they had to support the total ban due to the acute toxicity of wood smoke. Only Councilmember Talmage wandered off the air quality script, complaining that only 10% of people at beach fires are Carmel residents (the actual number is supposedly 20%) and that residents are better stewards of the beach than the kind of people who attend fires; remarks that would be instantly translated by the Coastal Commission as “We don’t want poor people on our beach.”
So the motion passed 3-2, and the total beach fire ban could go into effect as soon as January. But, meanwhile, the Coastal Commission will be considering the Pilot Program that a majority of the Council say they no longer want.
The fact that the City has not avoided the Coastal Commission hearing by rescinding their approval of the Pilot Program, suggests to many on the street in Carmel that the Mayor is not serious about a total ban, but is instead using the threat of a ban to pressure the Coastal Commission into upholding the Pilot Program. If this is the case, it seems to be working. Coastal Commission staff have recommended that the Commission approve the Pilot Program with only minor changes.
Assuming the Commission follows the staff recommendation, the City will soon need to choose between implementing the Pilot Program and pushing forward with a total ban. If the Council chooses to move forward with a ban, the Coastal Commission will likely ask them to explain why smoke from beach fires constitutes a pubic health emergency, while smoke from chimneys and backyard fire pits does not. That should be an interesting discussion.
Pro Tip: The fact that most of the people attending beach fires aren’t from Carmel is the wrong answer.