Fire Ring Compromise Should Substantially Increase Newport Beach Property Tax Assessments

The key word in this story’s headline is “should.”  I won’t say “will” — and I don’t even know that I’d say “might.”  But a compromise that leaves Huntington Beach’s fire rings mostly in place but leads to the removal of all fire rings in Newport Beach “should” lead to a substantial upwards reassessment of the value of the land beneath those beachfront residence adjacent to those rings.  (If the Winships live there, I’m sorry to say this — but it’s still true.)

I’ll get to the news story, reported in various venues over the past day or so, in a few paragraphs.  It’s the implications of the news story that I think deserve closer attention.   So since I’m continually informed that people won’t read more than 300 words of whatever I write, those will have to come first.

Fire rings in Corona del Mar -- with the people and fire excised

“Power to the people! (The ones with power, anyway.)”  Newport Beach gets it friends to rebuff the rabble.  Now it should pay.

Newport Beach beachfront residents will have, through the intervention of the AQMD, taken something away from the rest of the public — which I’ll henceforth refer here to as “the rabble” — that has been coming to the area between their homes and the water.  Up until now, the value of that land has been assessed with something important in mind:

People from north county (i.e., as they see it, north of the 405) may come to the beach between these beachfront houses and the edge of the continent and hold bonfires.  Homeowners therefore have less privacy and quiet enjoyment of their property than they would if the fire rings holding those bonfires were to be removed.

The use of the public beach is a public asset.  It’s an asset that still belong to the homeowners, but is now less valuable to the people from the rest of the county.  The value of their property going up substantially; the value of other property in the county, to which proximity to Corona del Mar has very slightly contributed — in other words, the value of living in, say, Tustin as opposed to Pomona — will now have very slightly decreased.  Newport Beach residents were very open about the fact that they wanted the rabble off of their beach.  The SCAQMD (the “air quality” deciders) will apparently acquiesce to their wishes.  OK, them’s the breaks — but now they should have to pay.

Oh, one other thing: the AQMD should now ban the use of outdoor barbecues in that area.  If they weren’t banned, one might get the sense that getting rid of all of that horrible smoke was not the actual motive behind the Newport Beachers’ actions — in which case, getting rid of the rabble was a bigger part of the reason, and the property tax associated with the land should go up even further.

If you want to “privatize” — even partially — a public asset, you should be prepared to pay for it.  If it’s a significant enough public asset, you should be prepared to pay through the nose.  (If property taxes for the rest of the county should be reduced ever so slightly to compensate, that would be fine — but it’s probably not worth the paperwork.)

Now let’s get to the story that others reported yesterday.  A staff report has come out with a compromise proposal that will leave the fire rings (possibly somewhat rearranged) in Huntington State Beach and Bolsa Chica State Beach, as well as Dockweiler Beach up around LAX, because they are not within 700 feet of homes.  Fire rings within 700 feet will have to come out, because Orange County needs the higher property taxes.  (No!  Sorry.  I mean, “because smoke.”)  The Board will vote on the plan at its July 12 meeting.

I’ll quote from three sources to give you most of the story, but here are the bullet points:

  • No blanket ban on fire rings.  (Also, no blanket ban on blankets, which would be really bad.)
  • Fire rings must be:
    • 700 feet away from the nearest residence, and either
    • Spaced at least 100 feet apart, if there are over 15 rings
    • Spaced at least 50 feet apart, if there are 15 or fewer rings
  • Starting March 1, 2014, cities and counties could pass local ordinances to further regulate or ban fire rings, they declare that such activity conducted within their boundaries causes a “nuisance” (as defined in Civil Code section 3479 or Health and Safety Code section 41700(a)) due to wood smoke exposure; such rules would be exempt from AQMD or Coastal Commission rules
  • During “no-burn days” — rare by the beach — all burning could be banned by the AQMD
  • Charcoal barbecues and propane stoves would be permitted under the ban
    • Newport Beach may conduct a six month demonstration project with five rings at Big Corona beach and five near the Balboa Pier running on an alternative to wood fuel, with the AQMD monitoring air quality as a result
  • AQMD will hold a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. June 13 at the Newport Beach Hyatt Regency

First, from the LAX-area Daily Breeze:

Recent air monitoring conducted by the four-county district at Corona del Mar, Balboa, Huntington Beach and Dockweiler found that the concentration of particles from wood burning fires is 2.8 to 16 times higher than ambient air in the parking lots — about 200 feet away — and three times higher in residential areas closer than 700 feet.

At lower concentrations, microscopic particles can reach the lungs and cause cardiac symptoms in sensitive individuals. At higher levels, the particles can cause heart or lung disease and even premature death in people with heart or lung problems, according to the AQMD. Studies done during the Southern California wildfires of 2003 found increased symptoms of eye, nose and throat irritation and asthma attacks in children. Respiratory-related hospital admissions rose for the elderly and for children ages 1 to 4, the agency reported.

The Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau objected to the original proposal, saying it would cut into $1 million in revenues from nighttime beach parking. Newport Beach, on the other hand, had asked the Coastal Commission for permission to take out 60 fire rings. The new amendments could allow Newport and Huntington to go their separate ways, without violating any state laws.

For a closer look at the basis for the 700-feet rule, see this report from Corona Del Mar Today.

But buffer zones are the major consideration that will remove beach bonfires altogether in some areas, including at Big Corona State Beach. The staff report suggests that buffer zones be created where no beach fire rings can be placed within 700 feet of residences.

The 700 feet buffer zone was based on studies that show that “the greater the distance from a source, the lesser the exposure to harmful air contaminants,” the staff report states. “(R)elative exposure to smoke from a single fire ring is decreased by up to 98 percent at 220 meters (or approximately 700 feet).”

A chart included in the staff report, however, shows the largest drop in “Exposure Reduction” was between about 100 feet and 200 feet from the source. At 400 feet, the “Relative Exposure” drops below 0.1; click here to read the report and see the chart.

AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said that staff determined that at a distance of 700 feet, smoke emissions are reduced by 98 percent. At 350 feet, there was an 85 percent reduction, and “staff felt that was not adequate,” he said.

Or, my guess is, staff were told that they did not feel that an 85% reduction was adequate.  (Seriously, are the lungs of those on Newport Beach more precious than those within a reek’s reach of Wilmington or Westchester?  Who am I kidding — of course they are!)

Finally, from the Huntington Beach Independent, political reaction to the compromise from local pols:

[Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry] said “We are pleased that the AQMD has developed a rule with the flexibility to accommodate both the coastal cities that wish to keep all of their fire rings and Newport Beach that desires to address the health and quality-of-life concerns of our residents.”

I’m glad that he added “quality of life” apart from “health,” because that refers to getting rid of the rabble and enjoying a lovely and unobstructed (at least by bonfire-burners) beachfront view.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, who also serves on the AQMD board, added in a statement: “The health impacts are clear, but we also need to preserve the Southern California beach experience.”

Well, I’m not so sure that the health impacts are clear.  Yes, the potential for harm is there — but that potential is often there, from many more serious sources than fire rings.  Is fire-ring smoke more or less likely to reduce deaths and disabilities than, say, removing all peanut and shellfish products from public areas for the benefit of people who have allergies?

Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Harper said: …  “These bureaucrats can’t control themselves with wanting to micromanage our lives.  Can’t we just enjoy the fire rings with friends and family without worrying about these people coming after us?”

(I think that that last question answers itself, doesn’t it?  Hey, anyone want to speculate over whether Harper would be singing that same tune if he were from Corona del Mar?)

State Assemblyman Travis Allen: “[I oppose] any attempt by the South Coast AQMD to restrict access to California’s beaches and our beach lifestyle traditions.”

Great!  Focusing on “access to beaches” is exactly the point!  I think I know who can lead the charge to push for higher property tax assessments (land only, of course) on Newport Beach residents in the “buffer zone”!  Making people pay for impinging on public access is the best market-based approach to solving these problems — right, Assemblyman Allen?

Meanwhile, a Corona del Mar anti-fire-ring activist said that the changes didn’t go far enough, but:

“I guess we’re not disappointed. We’ve got a compromise.”

Yes, you did — and the rest of us lose something valuable as a result.  Now you should have to pay for it.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)