UPDATED: Kaboom! La Jolla's July 4th fireworks back on after weeks of uncertainty

By Pat Sherman

Although the producer of La Jolla’s annual fireworks show at the Cove firmly announced its cancellation last week, by Saturday morning, June 14, Deborah Marengo of the La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation (LJCFF) was phoning

La Jolla Light

again to say the show was back on: 9-9:30 p.m. Friday, July 4 at Ellen Browning Scripps Park.

In an online announcement earlier last week, Marengo — who took over producing the 29-year tradition from restaurateur George Hauer five years ago — said her nonprofit foundation had finally raised enough money to produce the show, but was unable to secure a pyrotechnics company that wasn’t already booked July 4.

Marengo said four years of environmental challenges to local fireworks shows filed in court by Marco Gonzalez of Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) made donors leery of contributing to this year’s event, in which both its fate and costs were uncertain.

Marengo said when she reached out to donors in March, the fireworks foundation, represented pro bono by attorney Robert Howard of Latham and Watkins, was in the thick of settlement negotiations with CERF and the city attorney’s office, increasing donors’ hesitancy.

Gonzalez said he feels Marengo was “totally scapegoating us” in her announcement. “Every prior year’s show that has occurred during the litigation has been substantially more difficult than this year’s show would have been,” he said, prior to this year's fireworks being reinstated. "We’ve shown our willingness to work with every (fireworks producer) who doesn’t respond with just a middle finger — and that’s pretty much what La Jolla has done.”

As part of the settlement, which received final city council approval June 17, CERF will receive reimbursement of $250,000 in legal fees. The LJCFF must continue surrounding its launch area with a 6-foot-tall chain-link fence and flame retardant screen, in perpetuity (covering a wider area to prevent embers, trash and other debris from raining down on the coastal bluff). During the 2014 fireworks show only, the LJCFF must also allow CERF representatives to inspect cleanup of the launch site at the event’s conclusion.

Moving forward, as part of its settlement with CERF, the LJCFF will not be subject to environmental review under the terms of the California Environmental Quality Control Act (CEQA), as long as it meets the terms of the settlement agreement, Marengo said.

Conversely, the Port of San Diego’s Big Bay Boom fireworks is still subject to CEQA review and must obtain a Coastal Development Permit for its event, said its producer and founder, H. P. “Sandy” Purdon.

The city amended the municipal code in 2011 to require that certain fireworks events, such as La Jolla’s, obtain only a $27 park-use permit (as opposed to a special-use permit, which requires CEQA review) as long as La Jolla’s fireworks do not involve food or alcohol sales.

“We’d been negotiating that (permanent CEQA exemption) for months, but I couldn’t … tell anybody that, because I’m in the middle of high-level negotiations (for four CERF lawsuits),” Marengo said. “Moving forward, I’ll know exactly what my costs are.”

Marengo said the settlement agreement does not prevent LJCFF from being sued again in the future. “If we are ever sued again, Latham and Watkins is committed to standing behind the La Jolla community and continuing to represent us pro bono,” she said. “That’s a reassuring thing for me.”

Nearly Christmas in July

Just days after Marengo announced she was cancelling this year’s fireworks, the foundation that produces La Jolla’s annual Christmas Parade and Holiday Festival, as well as other La Jollans, began working to assure La Jolla had a fireworks display, albeit on Saturday, July 5.

Parade organizer Ann Kerr Bache secured a park-use permit and a $5,000 financial commitment from the office of District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner to produce the event July 5. Kerr Bache’s son created a website to accept donations, which has since been taken down and donations returned.

Kevin Brueckner, owner of Fireworks America, which has provided fireworks for La Jolla’s show for nearly two decades, agreed to produce the show July 5. He said Christmas Parade organizers had come “a long ways down the road” in a short amount of time.

“I was very impressed with what they’d accomplished,” Brueckner said, adding that the “main problem” with producing La Jolla’s fireworks on July 4 was that Marengo didn’t contact him about this year’s event until last month.

Marengo said Brueckner presented her with the idea of holding the fireworks on July 5 several weeks ago — an idea also supported by Councilmember Lightner — although she said family tradition, as well as hotel room bookings and restaurant and bar events all revolve around July 4. Her donors weren’t receptive to holding the event a day later, she said.

Marengo has since secured Los Angles-based pyrotechnics expert and Hollywood veteran John Eggett of Court Wizard Special Effects (who served as pyrotechnician for the 2013 film “Hansel & Gretel Get Baked” and handled special effects for several episodes of TV’s “The Office”).

Although Eggett will charge more than Fireworks America would have to produce the show on July 5 ($33,000 instead of $18,000), Marengo said La Jolla was lucky to procure his services. This year’s show will also be about 10 minutes longer, she said. “The way the pricing structure worked out, we’re paying more, but we’re actually getting more pyrotechnics,” Marengo said.

Additional costs, including $2,062 for a permit from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as the fencing, private security, portable toilets, a fire truck and paramedics will bring this year’s costs up to about $52,000, Marengo said (it would have been about $32,000 total if booked in time or held on July 5 with Fireworks America).

On Wednesday, Marengo said she had obtained both permits, and that some regular LJCFF donors were helping make phone calls to raise additional funds.

Marengo  said she secured the same $5,000 commitment from Lightner’s office, which will be paid via arts and culture grant monies down the road, and another $5,000 from the office of Mayor Kevin Faulconer. In the meantime, David and Patsy Marino of Hughes Marino commercial real estate have fronted Lightner's $5,000 pledge (to be paid back to them in the future).

Moving forward, Marengo said she’s trying to get donors to commit to funding the fireworks display in five-year installments, to give her foundation some breathing room and prevent future cancellation scares.

To donate to this year’s event, e-mail Marengo at  dmarengo@san.rr.com

Let freedom ring

Meanwhile, La Jollan Mike Barth is hoping to get La Jolla’s nine churches to each ring their collective bells for five minutes starting at noon on the Fourth of July — in a show of unity and celebration of the nation’s independence.

Barth said he has received some positive initial response. The

Light

will follow up in next week’s edition to let readers know which churches will be participating.

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