About this time last year the council began a six-month experiment with parking meters, devices long considered to be the ultimate insult to the dignity of the village. The council hoped to demonstrate that meters would solve a long-standing problem of too many cars and not enough parking spaces.
Parking “kiosks” (single meters designed to serve an entire block) were installed up and down Ocean Avenue to see what would happen. As I expected, locals avoided them by parking on every other street where parking was still free, while tourists, who didn’t know any better, paid up. But city officials didn’t interpret the results that way. They saw that Ocean Avenue parking spaces opened up more often and, based on that criteria alone, they declared the experiment a success. When almost nobody else agreed with that two-dimensional analysis, the city removed the meters. End of story.
This past week the council ventured down a similarly dubious path. By a slim 3-2 majority they approved the first reading of a controversial ordinance to declare beach fires a “public nuisance,” which would bring an abrupt end to a century-old social tradition. With a single vote on a simple subject, the council has set a course destined to leave a lot of their constituents very upset. Unless at least one of the three shows a willingness to compromise, the ship called City Hall is going to run aground on Carmel Beach as early as next month.
Beach fires have become a bit of a problem mainly due to their increasing numbers. Carmel is one of the few places left on the California coast where your family and friends can still gather around a fire to toast hot dogs and marshmallows on a foggy summer evening. For that reason people flock to Carmel beach to enjoy this simple social ritual that humans have engaged in since caveman times. Lots of people mean lots of fires. Lots of fires mean lots of smoke and lots of black ashes discoloring Carmel’s famous white sand. Too much of a good thing has gotten very messy.
Earlier this year the city had a plan to manage fires by placing 26 fire rings along the beach between 10th and 13th Avenues. The rings would contain the filthy ashes, and the number of fires allowed at any one time would be limited. Still, I thought 26 was too many. After all we’re still talking about eight to nine fires per block. In years past a busy night might see maybe a dozen fires, so 26 seemed overly generous. Unfortunately, some folks took the opposite view and decided 26 was too restrictive. They appealed the plan to the California Coastal Commission hoping to get a better deal. The CCC will consider the appeal next week.
Meanwhile, the city council grew concerned that the smoke from so many fires might get the city in trouble with state and regional air quality bureaucrats. Last summer an air quality monitor placed at a nearby residence detected unhealthy levels of smoke on just two nights, once in June and again on the 4th of July. Apparently something in that smoke made city officials go batshit crazy and they abruptly changed course.
The city passed a temporary emergency ordinance banning fires on weekends until proper studies could be done to find the best solution. But the Coastal Commission didn’t think two nights of bad air over three months was sufficient justification to declare an emergency. They told the city not to enforce the ban. Miffed city officials essentially said “screw you” to the Coastal Commission and escalated the conflict beyond reason. They decided they could make an end run around the Coastal Commission ruling by declaring beach fires a “public nuisance.” With Mayor Jason Burnett leading the charge, they drafted the ordinance to permanently ban all fires. This may have satisfied their egos, but it has ignited the anger of beachgoers.
It’s troubling enough to see the council so willing to dismantle an important component of Carmel’s unique social culture. Even more disturbing is how they are doing it, effectively bypassing the normal avenues of forming public policy. The proper course, which the city was following until recently, is to gather public input, study various alternatives, find ways to mitigate potential problems, and develop a plan. It’s a somewhat tedious process, but it usually works out for most of us. The 26 fire ring proposal grew out of that process. Now, it has all been chucked out the window and a total ban is being imposed on the community with minimal debate. In fact Mayor Burnett has made it clear he is not open to alternatives. In Wednesday’s Herald he was quoted “For me it comes down to the health impact of the smoke, for me, it’s an area where I can’t compromise.”
Yet the smoke reached unhealthy levels on only two evenings. Two. In fact, the proposed ordinance doesn’t cite fires as the problem per se, only the “excessive number of beach fires during peak use periods” such as Independence Day festivities. The key to a fair and reasonable solution, then, is not a complete ban but a limit on the number of fires allowed at any given time.
I think limiting fires to about 10 or 12 fire rings is a fair number, especially if they must be confined to the three-block segment of the beach where fires are currently allowed. Some experimentation with their placement might further reduce smoke drift into the surrounding neighborhood. These steps should limit smoke to historical levels, which folks seemed comfortable with in the past. The rings would confine coals and ashes to keep the beach clean and safe. To keep things simple, fire rings would be available on a first-come first-served basis, much as with picnic tables in parks. though a reservation system might be helpful for busy holiday weekends. I think this is a reasonable compromise, and should be satisfactory to almost everyone.
The question is whether Carmelites can convince at least one more council member that compromise is reasonable. I fear the mayor is a lost cause. That leaves Victoria Beach and Ken Talmage, but they’re coming across as more fearful of what the air quality bureaucrats might do than they are of the townsfolk they supposedly represent. As with the parking meter program, the council majority seems primarily interested in the technical aspects of the issue while disregarding the social and cultural implications of their actions. In a tightly knit community like Carmel, with deep-rooted social traditions, that is a huge political mistake.
James Toy lives in Seaside. This first appeared on one of his blogs, Mr. Toy’s Mental Notes.