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Fire pits on San Diego mayor’s budget chopping block

An anonymous donor’s $259,500 contribution last year to save San Diego’s 186 city beach fire pits from removal may be all for naught.

The popular beach amenity was a casualty last week in the mayor’s budget-cutting proposal to trim fiscal year 2011’s $179 million projected deficit.

A number of factors are working against the pits removal: it’s a big job, people like and expect them and a Coastal Commission permit may be required to eliminate them.

But one critical factor is working against their being saved — time.

“This budget takes effect Jan. 1 and this budget does not fund those fire pits,” said Rachel Laing, spokeswoman for Mayor Jerry Sanders.

Following last year’s anonymous donation, which funded the fire pits until June 30, 2010, the city kicked off a fundraising campaign to raise the $173,000 needed to ensure their inclusion in the FY 2011 budget. That effort fell woefully short.

“The total amount that’s been collected for fire pits so far is $1,209.27,” said Laing, adding, “Time has run out.”

First District Councilwoman Sherri Lightner was told by park department officials the deadline to find funding for 186 fire pits is sometime in April 2010. “We are very hopeful to retain those,” she said of the fire pits.

Should fire pit funding fall through, the city may face delays in getting them removed imposed by the California Coastal Commission, a state agency with regulatory influence over land use and public access in the California coastal zone.

“We’ve indicated to the city we believe a permit is necessary because it involves work on the beach and the work itself can affect the public’s ability to use and access the water,” said Deborah Lee, district manager for the San Diego office of the California Coastal Commission.

Getting a permit from the Coastal Commission is also a time-consuming process, added Lee, noting an application first needs to be submitted and then there is a six- to eight-week wait before it goes before the 12-member commission board for a decision.

“It would take a couple of months to issue the permit from the time we receive an application, and we haven’t received an application yet,” she said.

Lee said the board would evaluate the application to remove San Diego fire pits using a number of criteria including budgetary constraints, the maintenance problems and costs, whether it’s a temporary or a complete removal. “There’s multiple variations on how this thing might be approached,” she said.

La Jollans, including Mary Coakley, a member of the La Jolla Shores Association (LJSA) community advisory group, are mulling over what fire pit removal might mean to the community.

She said they are both a public amenity and a nuisance that attracts undesired elements or activities, such as gangs or drug and alcohol use.

“It’s really a catch-22,” she said. “They certainly serve the general public very well. It would be a shame to lose them. They’re part and parcel to what the beach experience is all about.”

At LJSA’s December meeting, chair Jim Heaton said removing the fire pits could also pose a significant safety threat, explaining beach users would undoubtedly bring their own cooking equipment to the beach and deposit hot coals in unmarked sandy areas where they could be stepped on later by people, especially children.