City Council eases some regulations on coastal fireworks

The crowd watches fireworks at La Jolla Cove in 2010. Photo: Brittany Comunale
The crowd watches fireworks at La Jolla Cove in 2010. Photo: Brittany Comunale

By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

The ongoing battle over regulation of coastal fireworks took a new, more lenient turn as city council voted 6-2 and 5-3 Monday on changes that could make it easier for communities to get fireworks permits.

The votes will amend the Municipal Code to exempt fireworks displays on city-owned property from obtaining special-event permits or from making the Parks and Recreation Department consider traffic impacts in granting park-use permits for private events.

Council members David Alvarez and Marti Emerald voted no on exempting fireworks from some conditions of park-use permits, and Todd Gloria joined them on opposing exempting fireworks from obtaining special-event permits.

Introduced by the City Attorney’s office, the budget item clarifies fireworks displays where people gather on city-owned property are exempt from the special event permit requirement, "unless the fireworks display also involves the sale of food or alcohol at certain non-exempt locations" like Petco Park.

According to the City Attorney's Office, officials with the Parks and Recreation staff for years have only checked to make sure the number of people expected at a fireworks event fits the size of the property, so the changes only bring the municipal code in line with current practice.

Traffic and environmental issues were not at stake for the operators of the shows, as far as the city was concerned, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said.

Those who put the shows on might have separate environmental obligations, Goldsmith said.

But that didn't satisfy Environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF), who argued that the city’s position making it easier for groups to host coastal fireworks was a thinly veiled attempt to “legally sidestep” a pending lawsuit challenging the city’s failure to conduct environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for the annual La Jolla Cove Fourth of July fireworks display.

“If you exempt fireworks shows from the municipal code for special events, you eviscerate the ability to recover the cost of providing public safety services — lifeguards, fire and police — for what are essentially privately organized events,” Gonzalez said adding, “The law has been very clear since 1975 that if an event has potentially significant impacts, you have to comply with CEQA.”

Gonzalez claimed the city has the burden to prove there is “no possibility of fireworks ever causing significant impacts on the environment.”

Bruce Resnik, former director of San Diego environmental watchdog group Coastkeeper, concurred with Gonzalez’ position. He testified there is a growing body of evidence that fireworks displays have negative impacts on birds and marine wildlife and on the ocean environment itself.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald said the staff’s recommendation to amend municipal codes pertaining to fireworks didn’t pass her “smell test.”

“Is this a legal maneuver in the face of litigation over fireworks displays and conformance with CEQA?" she asked early on, later adding, “The fact is fireworks have the potential to change the environment. That’s why in California you can’t buy bottle rockets and sparklers because it’s been proven time and again that they cause fires and injuries and pollute the environment.”

Deborah Marengo, spokeswoman for La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation, the nonprofit corporation that puts on the community’s Fourth of July display anad is seeking 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, said fundraising for 2011 fireworks is going slowly.

“Right now we’re only at $3,500 and we need a minimum of $25,000 or $26,000,” Marengo said.

Marengo has set a June 1 deadline for raising the money needed for this year’s La Jolla fireworks.

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