Wet beach-blanket bingo is bad for bonfires, dude

Being a Californian confers certain benefits. Foremost among them is the knowledge that even if you don’t surf, even if you don’t spend a lot of time at the beach, even if you never have been to a beach bonfire party, if you ever should feel the urge to shout “Surf’s up!” or toast marshmallows or do the Watusi at a fireside beach party, you can do so at one of the Golden State’s public beaches.

It doesn’t matter where you live or whom you know or how much money you have. The right to public beach access is “constitutionally guaranteed,” California Coastal Commission Legislative Director Sarah Christie insists. It’s her commission’s mission to protect public access.

But all is not peachy in Southern California. In 2012, the Newport Beach City Council voted unanimously to get rid of 60 fire pits at Corona del Mar State Beach and near the Balboa Pier, citing public health concerns. That sparked the bonfire wars.

Residents bristled; local establishments protested. The California Coastal Commission intervened to keep the bonfires burning for nighttime beachgoers.

Then the South Coast Air Quality Management District backed up the anti-bonfire forces by passing a regulation that would have resulted in the removal of beach fire pits within 700 feet of homes.

Quoted in the Orange County Register, Corona del Mar homeowners Frank and Barbara Peters, who live 520 feet from fire pits, praised the air district for creating awareness about the dangers of particulate matter.

“When I first saw the issue, I laughed,” Huntington Beach’s surfing Republican assemblyman, Travis Allen, told me. “This is a California tradition.”

Alas, there is another California tradition; it involves rich people trying to keep the riffraff out of their enclaves. Allen is convinced that Newport Beach and the air district acted to protect the interests of tony beachfront property owners by dousing the bonfires. “This is not an air quality issue,” quoth Allen. “It’s an access issue masquerading as an air quality issue.”

And: “Just because you own a multimillion-dollar home, it doesn’t mean you get to claim a public beach as your private property.”

“We had never really looked at the impact of air pollution from beach bonfires,” air district spokesman Sam Atwood told me when I asked him about the controversy’s history. But when the district did examine pollution downwind from beach bonfires, it found harmful particulates. According to the air district, one minute of a beach bonfire emits the equivalent of the secondhand smoke from 800 cigarettes.

When I mentioned Allen’s populist argument, Atwood countered, “Why doesn’t everyone deserve clean air regardless of their economic status? What we’re talking about is an air quality issue, yes, on the downwind residents who are high-income — but also those who are at the beach,” who may be low-income.

Problem: That 700-foot buffer sure seems to shield the beach-view clique and not the hoi polloi.

For Allen, this is a perfect wave of a political issue. The GOP Moondoggie is savoring the opportunity to stand against the mansion class and speak for those who can’t afford to fall asleep to the gentle sound of the surf.

Huntington Beach businesses have united against a bad bureaucratic fiat. In a pro-bonfire video, city marketing director Madison Fisher described the bonfires as “one of the last inexpensive things that a family can do together.”

Surf City USA has a slogan to save the bonfires: “Keep your mitts off our pits.”

To keep the bonfires burning, Allen co-authored Assembly Bill 1102 with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, which effectively would override the air district’s fire pit regulations, set to commence March 1, pending a permit from the pro-access California Coastal Commission. AB 1102 passed through two committees without a single no vote. Given that a pro-pit nonbinding resolution breezed through both houses of the state Legislature with bipartisan support last year, Allen has every reason to believe he will prevail.

Cowabunga. What state elected official doesn’t want to side with the beach-loving public in a turf war with party poopers who bought houses at the beach, only to declare war because they have to put up with beach lovers — and then get local officials to do their dirty work?

I can’t help it. This story brings out the inner Gidget in me.

So does Travis Allen like this fight? Do fish mate in the ocean? “It’s what your elected officials should be doing for you,” he smiled.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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