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Daily Pilot

Recreation area could supplant fire rings

By Jill Cowan

4:42 PM PST, November 15, 2012

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Corona del Mar State Beach and Balboa Pier visitors may soon play volleyball or monkey around on "interpretive play structures" where the beaches' hotly debated fire rings now stand, according to a letter the city of Newport Beach sent to the California Coastal Commission.

The Oct. 19 letter — which was first reported by Corona del Mar Today — lays out the city's alternative plans for the fire ring areas if the commission approves Newport's application for a permit to remove the rings. The letter was posted on the city's website this week.

Those plans include the installation of volleyball courts and a space net climbing structure at Corona del Mar and expanded open beach area at Balboa Pier.

"Visitors would utilize the open beach area throughout the day," the report says. "With the existence of fire rings, the area is primarily used in the evenings."

An extra 20,000 square feet of sand space would be open at Corona del Mar during the peak season, and an additional 24,000 square feet at Balboa Pier if the plans move forward. Four volleyball courts would be built at Corona del Mar, and a space net play area would be installed nearby.

In March, the City Council voted unanimously to remove the rings, after residents and beachgoers complained about the smoke, sparking a city Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission review of the city's 60 fire rings.

Many of the fire rings were installed in the years following World War II, according to the letter. The rings' iconic place in Newport's beach culture — as gathering points after a day enjoying the water, or a place to toast marshmallows with friends — was pitted against the potential health risks posed by high levels of wood smoke in surrounding areas during council discussions on the matter.

In May, the city submitted a Coastal Development permit application to the Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over the areas where the fire rings are, but the application was sent back with a request for more information.

In August, the city resubmitted the application, but it was again sent back with requests for more detailed information and documentation about the fire rings' impact on air quality, fire ring usage statistics, demonstration that the city has the authority to remove the rings from a state beach and a detailed history of the fire rings.

The Oct. 19 letter is the city's response to those requests. Documents sent with the letter include a letter from South Coast Air Quality Management District Health Effects Officer Jean Ospital saying that wood smoke can contribute to higher levels of "ambient particulate matter," which can, in turn, cause a number of respiratory health problems.

If the application is accepted as complete, the commission will likely hold a public hearing on the matter in February. The rings will remain in place until the commission completes its application review.

jill.cowan@latimes.com

Twitter: @jillcowan