Dave Potter punts

The players in what is Carmel’s long-running debate over beach fires were back on the field at the City Council meeting on Aug. 6 for another contest. The competitors—anti- versus pro- wood-burning fires—faced off with the usual plays, both offense and defense.

The anti-wood-burning team argued negative health effects of smoke and harm to the environment. The pro-wood-burning competitors invoked tradition and positive community-building impacts. (They also had a uniform: several wore white T-shirts with a peace symbol, a heart, a campfire and the words, “Carmel Compromise.”) Both sides declared science and the Coastal Act were on their side—depending on their own interpretations.

Each side had its own prize to chase. The anti side wanted the Council to stick with its vote in June to require propane-only fires on Carmel Beach during the final year of a three-year pilot program that limits wood-burning fires, ending in November 2020. The pro side was fighting to keep the eight or so metal fire pits currently in use.

Carmel City Council was facing a dilemma beyond the obvious political problem of which side to vote with. There was a practical dilemma as well. The Council’s June vote was appealed to the California Coastal Commission by two residents. Fighting for the single season of propane-only fires would require lots of staff time and financial resources, and their chances of prevailing were in doubt.

Carmel Mayor Dave Potter’s play at the end of the night was to punt.

“I prefer the community both pro and con come together as one,” Potter said. “I know there is a real confrontational element out there, but if we can put our baggage in the drawer and just say we can talk about this, because something is going to happen. What can we put forward as a compromise?”

Potter suggested that over the next nine months or so the residents figure out a solution before the end of the pilot. But Councilmember Jeff Baron disagreed, saying the existing pilot program, which limits the number of wood-burning fires to a maximum of 12, is the compromise.

“I don’t find that to be a realistic plan,” Baron said of Potter’s idea. Potter called it “cynical” to think residents could not reach a solution.

At the end of a very long debate, Council voted 4-1 to keep the status quo of a limited number of wood-burning beach fires from 4-10pm and an unlimited number of propane fires, April to November.

Baron voted no because he wanted a new ordinance “memorializing” the current rules. Residents are tired of the decade-long debate and it should come to a stop, he said.

Throwing the issue back to the residents with two opposite and intractable positions will likely guarantee another fight in 2020 as the pilot program comes to a close.

Within hours it was clear that at least one anti-wood-burning advocate wanted to stoke the flames of continued debate. She rejected Potter's idea of compromise.

“Your quest for finding ‘compromise’ from the public is not the mission. The mission and your responsibility is to follow the laws based on the Coastal Act,” Carmel resident Lynn Ross wrote in an email she sent just before midnight to councilmembers, copying members of the media.

“It is illegal to prevent access, and to have a program that tells people when or where they can be on the beach,” she wrote. “It is apparent that the ‘compromise’ of having wood-smoke will continue to prevent access.”

She calls a compromise with any wood-burning fires being allowed “abusive.”

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Pam Marino joined the Monterey County Weekly in November 2016. She covers the communities of Carmel, Pacific Grove, Del Rey Oaks, Pebble Beach and North County. She also covers tourism, health, housing and homelessness, business and agriculture.

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