Council OKs clarification for fireworks permits

By James R. Riffel

City News Service

Clarifications to the municipal code section on granting permits to fireworks shows and other events in city parks got preliminary approval Tuesday from the San Diego City Council.

The council voted 5-2 to make the issuing of park-use permits for July 4 fireworks displays at La Jolla Cove, Mission Bay and Ocean Beach routine or, in city parlance, “ministerial.’' The item will return to the council in the near future for final approval.

The action stems from a judge’s ruling that nearly put some Independence Day pyrotechnics displays out of business. Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn sided with environmental lawyer Marco Gonzalez, who contended that the city’s practice of routinely giving out permits to organizers of the shows conflicted with the municipal code, which called for individual scrutiny of park use permits — including costly environmental reviews.

The City Attorney’s Office opined last week that the code amendments would make Gonzalez’s lawsuit, which the city is appealing, moot. Gonzalez himself told the council he welcomed the changes, but added that the city was going about it in the wrong way and thus might invite further litigation.

Gonzalez believes debris from airborne explosions over coastal waters harms marine life. The fireworks show discussed the most in the case was the one at La Jolla Cove, which is adjacent to a marine sanctuary.

The judge did not base her ruling on environmental factors, but on city officials not following the municipal code.

To give the officials a chance to figure out how to implement her order, she stayed her ruling, allowing this year’s shows to go on.

Gonzalez said that after organizers had cleaned up, “a plethora of trash’’ was discovered in the water and close to shore. He brought in three bags containing what he said was found, including fuses and unexploded pieces of ordnance.

Organizers of the displays said they would go out of business without ministerial permits because they could not afford annual environmental reviews. The city estimates such studies, required for park use permit applicants deemed to be non-ministerial, would cost about $15,000.

Robert Howard, a lawyer who represents the La Jolla Fireworks Foundation, said his client has a $30,000 budget and shouldn’t need an

environmental review after being in business for 27 years.

“We have a show that lasts 23-25 minutes once per year,’' Howard said.

Councilmen David Alvarez and Todd Gloria cast the dissenting votes. Gloria said he hoped the two sides could work out their dispute themselves before the amendments return to the panel.

The amendments codify a summertime moratorium on events at Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park and parks along the shoreline other than named annual events, including:

• the Pride Festival;

• Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon;

• AFC Half-Marathon;

• Over-the-Line;

• Ocean Beach Street festival, and several smaller events.

Organizers of the Earth Fair, the annual environmental festival that attracts about 60,000 attendees each year, told council members they believed their exclusion from the list and changes to their permit proposed by city officials meant their event would not be allowed next year.

Parks and Recreation Director Stacey LoMedico told council members that staff only wanted to discuss how to accommodate the growth in Earth Fair’s popularity, and it was their intent to issue a permit for 2012.