Council OKs fire pits at Aliso Beach, takes steps for permanent system to designate areas, times for skimboarding

By SARA HALL

City Council this week unanimously agreed to move forward with various management and operation items related to South Laguna beaches, including authorizing seven wood-burning fire pits at Aliso Beach and taking steps to permanently authorize a system allowing skimboarding in designated areas at designated times.

Councilmembers voted 5-0 on Tuesday (May 14) on a plan regarding propane and wood-burning fire pits at Aliso Beach, signage for naturally occurring hazards, marine safety operations and a system for allowing some skimboarding, and public works maintenance.

Most of the discussion revolved around the fire rings, specifically the number to install, location of each ring and allowed use.

Although he voted for the item, Councilmember George Weiss was the most vocal about his concerns for re-installing the wood-burning fire pits.

“I don’t like them myself. I think they’re polluting of the air and of the ocean, but let’s see how they go,” Weiss said.

They’re also “kind of ugly” structures, he pointed out, and suggested only five of the fire pits.

“We don’t necessarily have to have seven. We could have four or five and then decide to increase the number down the road,” Weiss said.

Although a few councilmembers were flexible on the number, a majority ultimately agreed on the recommended seven wood-burning fire pits at Aliso Beach in the same locations where they were placed by the county, as identified by city staff in a 2010 aerial image.

Acting Marine Safety Chief Kai Bond explained that when they looked back through records, staff was able to identify at least seven fire pits. They are placed in appropriate locations, he added, answering a councilmember question.

“We know that they will have to be moved at some point based on continual sand shift at Aliso,” Bond said.

It makes sense to use those locations, agreed Councilmember Bob Whalen.

They can always remove the rings over time based on sand erosion, Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi pointed out.

“I would rather have more and then have to remove them going forward,” if needed, he said.

Rounaghi supported moving forward with the recommended seven pits and giving staff discretion to remove them over time based on sand conditions and other circumstances on the beach.

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Kindel Media/Pexels

The city is working on re-installing wood-burning fire pits at Aliso Beach (a similar fire pit is pictured)

On March 1, 2023, the city assumed ownership of and responsibility for South Laguna beaches, including Aliso Beach parking lot and concession facility, from Orange County.

Bond explained that the county previously maintained the fire pits at Aliso Beach for public use on a first-come, first-served basis. Some of the fire pits were removed, taken out of service during COVID, or buried or washed away during storm events before the city took over control. The remaining fire pits were removed by the county during the transition of ownership.

During an update to City Council on May 16, 2023, staff addressed a number of potential services and improvements, including fire pits. Council directed staff to return in October with more information.

On October 24, council 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 (rules, management, staff supervision, etc.) before it returned to them for the final decision. Councilmembers directed staff to proceed with the appropriate coastal development permit process for purposes of installing the fire pits.

On January 17, the Planning Commission unanimously approved a coastal development permit for the city to re-install seven wood-burning fire pits in the sand at Aliso Beach.

Answering a commissioner question at the January Planning Commission meeting, Assistant City Attorney Alisha Winterswyk confirmed that despite that the fire pits were removed they are still considered a historic use for the site, in terms of the California Environmental Quality Act exemption for the proposed re-install project.

At both the October meeting and in this week’s item, staff recommended the city allow the use of wood-burning fire pits by the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Although there were some stipulations, including a “responsible person of at least 18 years of age is at least 25 feet from the burning pit.” They also recommended 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.

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 also recommended, both now and in October, 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 Air Quality Management District regulations and the American with Disabilities Act, as well as to address local conditions at Aliso Beach.

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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).

According to the SCAQMD rule, 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. The ordinance also provides the fire code official with the authority to identify conditions under which beach burning would be prohibited.

They would not be able to burn during red flag or no burn days, Bond confirmed, answering a question from the public.

Mayor Sue Kempf suggested (which was ultimately added to the approved motion) that the city send out Nixle alerts on red flag and no burn days to remind residents that fires are prohibited.

The new replacement wood-burning fire pits will have the same purpose and capacity as the prior ones, Bond said. They can be moved and relocated for anticipated storm events or tidal changes. Police and marine safety will oversee the use and address issues, he added. The city’s public works department will maintain the fire pits, removing excess materials as needed.

The wood-burning fire pits are heavy enough that they require a tractor to move them, confirmed Deputy Director of Public Works Reza Jafari, answering a council question. The city has the necessary beach equipment that they can use to move, place, or remove them as necessary.

They will be similar to those used by the City of Newport Beach; constructed of concrete, have an outer diameter of five feet, an overall height of one foot; and cost approximately $2,000 each. The approved action also appropriated $20,000 from the South Laguna Fund for the purchase of the wood-burning fire pits.

Whalen also suggested (which was also included in the final motion for approval) some clarification in the language regarding what to do with the remnants of the fire. The proposed wording states that “used natural wood, fire log(s), and charcoal must be deposited in hot coal receptacles on the beach or transported off the beach and deposited in hot coal receptacles.”

“Sounds like the person using the fire pit is supposed to scoop up the coals and take them somewhere, which I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Whalen said.

Fire Marshal Robert Montaghami explained that if any fire remnants are left, users are to let them burn themselves out within the confinement of the ring itself.

Users are not supposed to put any fuel into the fire within an hour of the Aliso Beach parking lot closing, Bond added.

City Attorney Megan Garibaldi agreed with Whalen and noted that it should say that all used natural wood, fire logs and charcoal shall remain in the fire pit, and only a city-designated official shall remove it and place it in a hot coal receptable.

Also as part of the city taking ownership of the beaches, Laguna Beach 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 (up to five are available to rent at one time) on a first-come, first-served basis in a designated sandy area adjacent to the building, Bond explained.

Instead of creating a rental program for the city, staff proposed keeping the Lost Pier program running and making a minor amendment to the city’s fire code that 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.

Related to marine safety operations, this week staff recommended extending the trial period for the skimboard area for an additional 12 months until June 1, 2025.

City code allows the city manager, marine safety chief, or police chief (or their authorized designees), or another officer or employee selected by the City Council, to designate areas and times for surfing, including skimboarding, by delineating such areas with posted signs/flags.

Over the past year, staff also implemented a trial system through the posting of signs/flags that allows skimboarding in specific areas at Aliso Beach based on sand and ocean conditions. As a result, no significant incidents or negative feedback has been recorded. Staff is requesting an extension of the trial period for the skimboard area for another year (until June 1, 2025).

They’ve been working with the skimboarding community on the project, Bond noted.

Rounaghi suggested making the system for designating the skimboarding area at Aliso Beach permanent instead of the requested extension of the trial program. It would still only apply to the specifically designated areas/times at Aliso Beach, he clarified, but that regulatory framework could become permanent, instead of continuing it as a trial program, which would require returning to the council again in one year.

Staff agreed they could take steps to make the process permanent.

City Manager Dave Kiff suggested that the language should authorize city staff to extend the trial period indefinitely and then staff can return with a code amendment to reflect that.

That’s the best action considering the time constraint, Bond agreed.

Regarding signage, city staff installed municipal code and marine protected area signs at coastal access points, replacing previously existing directional, educational and parking signs that the county used, Bond explained. Warning signs were also placed on the beach and rocks to warn visitors about the potential for naturally occurring hazards. Staff is working with the California Coastal Commission to identify if these signs are above or below the mean high tide line and to provide a signage plan that includes a Spanish version. Once completed, the city’s coastal development permit application will be scheduled for a CCC hearing.

Rounaghi suggested some slight changes to the rules and regulations signage, which doesn’t need to happen immediately, he added, but when it comes time to replace the signs. Looking at the current signage design, it’s a bit confusing whether or not surfing and skimboarding are allowed at first glance because of the red cross-out graphic.

“It’s important for us to be as transparent and clear about what the rules are,” Rounaghi said.

He also commented on the caution sign for natural hazards. Deaths have occurred at the nearby sea coves, he noted, so he appreciates the warnings, but said they can come up with “tougher and more realistic language about the dangers.”

Although mentioning the number of fatal incidents in the sign might be a bit “scary,” other councilmembers noted.

“Not scary – accurate,” Rounaghi replied. “I want to accurately inform people of the risks because it’s a really dangerous situation.”

This week’s approved item also appropriated $450,000 from the South Laguna Fund to support ongoing beach maintenance operations in South Laguna for fiscal year 2023-24.

Through a combination of city staff and contractor efforts, the public works and utilities department provides both routine and emergency response to important maintenance concerns citywide, including at the newest beach facilities in South Laguna, Jafari said.

General responsibilities include parking lot sweeping, staircase maintenance and beach grooming. Emergency work is as-needed in response to storms, ocean swells, deceased marine mammal removal and other issues.

Council also authorized the city manager to amend an agreement with Spectrum Facility Maintenance, in a form approved by the city attorney, to increase the total annual contract amount by $580,000.

That’s in addition to the existing contract value, Jafari explained. The city currently has an existing contract that provides day porter services at other city facilities. The annual cost to provide these services in South Laguna is estimated at $580,000 annually, he said.

Staff also noted that between March 1, 2023, and February 29, marine safety staff performed 2,383 ocean rescues, responded to 2,463 medical calls for service and made 193,901 preventative contacts in South Laguna.

A discussion regarding special event permitting and Aliso Beach berm conduct will return to the council at a future meeting, Bond said.

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


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