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No ban on beach fires, but much tougher rules

By MARY BROWNFIELD

Published: August 14, 2009

THE CITY should continue allowing fires on Carmel Beach south of 10th Avenue but do a better job of enforcing the rules, educating the public and cleaning the sand, the planning commission decided Aug. 12. It should also establish a committee to address the issue of beach fires and get a report in 15 months to see if the measures have made a difference in the cleanliness of the beach.

The topic — which drew a crowd when the forest and beach commission tackled it last month — was raised during budget discussions a few months ago by a city councilwoman who suggested banning the fires to save money, since taxpayers foot the bill for beach cleanups.

Planning and building services manager Sean Conroy said fires have long been a Carmel tradition and are even acknowledged in city’s Local Coastal Program.

But many of the rules governing them are difficult to enforce. While most beach goers know fires are only allowed south of 10th Avenue, they may not realize they must be built west of the high-tide line, which “changes from day to day,” Conroy pointed out. In addition, many don’t know where that line is, “and if it’s high tide, you can’t have beach fires.”

Other rules on the books limit the blazes to 5 feet high and 4 feet wide, and they must be at least 25 feet from the bluffs. People should not bury their fires before leaving, so unsuspecting pedestrians don’t get burned by stepping on them.

Conroy showed several slides depicting the accumulation of charcoal and the resulting darkened sand, particularly in the sheltered coves at 12th and 13th avenues far from the surf. An additional problem, he said, is people’s use of the charcoal to write on the seawalls.

When the forest and beach commission discussed the issue last month, it decided fires should be permitted but public information, signage and cleanup efforts should be intensified.

Conroy said options for the planning commission’s recommendations to the city council include maintaining the status quo, installing fire rings (which are unsightly and create their own problems of darkened sand and accumulated trash), requiring permits to limit the number of fires, imposing further restrictions on where they can be lit, and allocating more money for cleanup, signs and public education. He also said the commission could recommend banning them outright.

Banning picnics?

Many residents wrote letters to the city defending the tradition of beach fires, and only one, from a woman in Del Rey Oaks, suggested they be banned.

The Carmel Residents Association, which holds a beach cleanup each month (including a session slated for Aug. 22), proposed more public education, permits for fires, better signs, portable fire rings, frequent beach patrols, periodic followup by the city council, and the formation of a committee “to conduct a focused analysis of the problem.”

Longtime resident Lindsay Hanna, who lives on San Antonio near 11th Avenue, said he and his family have had nighttime picnics on the beach for 50 years.

“I don’t mean to make light of this, but if you’re going to ban fires, you’re banning picnics on the beach,” he said, because fires are necessary for cooking hot dogs and keeping warm. Instead, he said, the city should try to address the problems.

Several other residents agreed, and Hugo Ferlito suggested firefighters could take leisurely walks on the beach from time to time to ensure people know the rules.

His wife, former forest and beach commissioner Karen Ferlito, said people might follow the rules if they know what they are.

“When we make the sign so minuscule that no one can read it, we really can’t expect people to abide by it,” she pointed out, adding that the rules could be posted on the doors of nearby restrooms.

A relative newcomer who has lived in Carmel for two years said that before the topic came up for discussion this week, the only rule he knew was that fires could only be lit south of 10th Avenue. “You can’t expect people who come here for the weekend to know,” every rule, he said. “How can you know that, other than reading the city’s municipal code?”

CRA President Barbara Livingston also said the city should consider fires’ carbon emissions.

“I spoke with coastal staff, and there was a long pause, and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, we never thought about that,’” she recounted. She also said the coastal commission urged the city to enforce its laws.

CRA member Clayton Anderson, a key organizer in the group’s monthly beach cleanups for the past 17 years, asked the city to spend more resources on getting charcoal and other burned detritus off the sand. City forester Mike Branson said city crews work every week or two for several hours to clear charcoal, and usually lift a couple thousand pounds of it and unburned wood off the beach.

“Education is wonderful, articles in The Pine Cone are wonderful, but the only way charcoal is going to go away is if the city takes it away,” said CRA member Linda Anderson. “And the only way the city is going to take it away is money.”

Commissioner Steve Hillyard thanked the public for the comments and said the city should figure out how to best use the $10,000 already allotted for the cleanup effort, since so far, it has spent just $4,000 of the dedicated funds.

“We need to pay much greater attention to managing that beach and keeping it clean,” he said.

Commissioner Robin Wilson said the group should recommend the city council follow through on the forest and beach commission’s suggestions, but John Thodos, who served as a temporary commissioner Wednesday, said it should give more definitive direction.

“I’m not seeing any teeth in this recommendation — it’s all just air,” he said, before calling it “pure nonsense” and “just words.” Instead, he said, the commission should make concrete recommendations on spending and enforcement. “I would be embarrassed to second this thing.”

Chairman Alan Hewer suggested delaying a month so specific recommendations could be drafted, but Conroy urged commissioners to move ahead and word their suggestions to council as strongly as they wanted.

In addition to the forest and beach commission’s recommendations, the planning commission suggested beefing up enforcement — including fines — spending more money on cleanup efforts, establishing an ad hoc committee and requiring a followup report in 15 months.