A proposed state law that aims to undo controversial restrictions on Southern California's beach bonfires is expected to reach the Assembly floor for a vote next week.
Assembly Bill 1102 passed out of the Appropriations Committee with a unanimous vote Thursday.
"This legislation will ensure that every Californian has access to our beautiful beaches through the affordable attraction of a beach bonfire," Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) said in a statement. He co-authored the bill with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton).
The bill, if approved, would essentially negate the South Coast Air Quality Management District's regulations on wood-burning fire rings, unless a public agency is able to "obtain and implement" a coastal development permit to remove or otherwise restrict access to the rings within a two-year window after the AQMD rule was passed.
That means that cities or counties hoping to remove any of their fire rings would have to get permission to do so from the California Coastal Commission.
The Coastal Commission, a state agency tasked with maintaining access to California's beaches, has said that the bonfires are a low-cost form of public recreation — the view also of many local residents and legislators.
Air quality regulators, meanwhile, took up concerns first raised by Newport Beach residents living near the bonfires, who say smoke from the wood-fueled flames poses a respiratory health risk.
The AQMD's new Rule 444, which is set to go into effect in March, includes provisions requiring that bonfires be either 700 feet away from homes or 100 feet from one another.
It also says explicitly that if a particular jurisdiction — like the city of Newport Beach, for example — wants to get rid of any or all of its fire rings, it has the power to do so.
As a result, the AQMD recently voted to oppose AB 1102.
The back-and-forth between the agencies has left Newport Beach with a case of bureaucratic whiplash, officials have said.
Newport, which has voted to reduce the number of fire rings on its beaches from 60 to 27, may participate in an AQMD pilot program to test natural gas fire rings. But both the AQMD and the Coastal Commission have expressed dissatisfaction with the city's plan, for opposite reasons.
While the city's plan would not space fire rings far enough apart to comply with the AQMD rule, the Coastal Commission has asked the city not to remove any of its existing fire pits.
Newport Beach Councilman Keith Curry, who is running to replace Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) next year, said he opposes the bill because it hands more power to the Coastal Commission — which has, over the years, frustrated beach cities hoping to move forward with various development projects without state intervention.
"What we need is legislation that gives each individual city the right to determine fire ring policy for each community," he wrote in an email. "This bill expands the power of the Coastal Commission and makes it more difficult for local cities to maintain curfews and restrictions on what is burned on the beach."
Leaders in neighboring Huntington Beach, including Mayor Matthew Harper, have been vocal supporters of the bill, as an effort to keep all of that city's fire rings in place.
Harper, who is also vying for the 74th District Assembly seat, said he sees legislation as the only way of diverting what he called a "looming legal battle between the AQMD and Coastal Commission over turf."