Beach fires and commercial district parking meters are top topics at Pacific Beach Town Council meeting

Illegal beach fires that leave burnt remnants in the sand have been a worry for area residents this year.

Discussions about parking meters on Garnet Avenue and illegal fires on the beaches highlighted the Pacific Beach Town Council’s September meeting.

A proposed one-year pilot program to introduce metered parking to the commercial district along Garnet as early as the spring could produce thousands of revenue dollars to fund community projects while easing congestion, according to a report by the local Community Parking District.

Meanwhile, San Diego police and fire officials made their case for a community approach that includes residents as the best method to contain the spread of illegal beach fires, as false alarms start taking a toll on first responders.

Noting that calls about illegal beach fires draw on critical resources, Capt. Jared Cheselske of local Fire Station 21 said: “We understand that you get people burning pallets in the sand and it’s getting out of control. Yes, we’ll come and put it out. Our concern is that we’re getting upward to 11 of these calls a night. We’ll do our due diligence to make sure you guys are safe, but they really don’t fall under the classification as an emergency response.”

Illegal beach fires have been a hot topic through the summer as restrictions on public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an uptick in people spending their evenings next to a fire on local beaches this year.

Problems ranging from illegal open fires on the beaches to lower participation in this year’s U.S. Census were addressed at the August Pacific Beach Town Council meeting.

Aug. 24, 2020

Fires in contained rings are legal on the beach, but community alarm over all beach fires has outpaced people’s ability to determine the legitimacy of the fires they are reporting, according to Denise Friedman, who leads a task force working with the city Mission Bay Park Committee to identify issues in the park.

“People who are calling don’t always know what’s legal and what’s not legal,” she said. “So education [is part of the solution]. The fire department and the police need our community organizations to help with that education.”

Lack of knowledge cuts both ways, according to local police community relations Officer Brandon Broaddus. He said the culprits behind illegal beach fires are often visitors unaware of the prohibition on fires on the sand, and many instantly comply once informed.

“If you live outside the state, when you come to California you want to go to the beach and have a bonfire on the beach,” Broaddus said. “You see it on TV. You see it in the movies. I think people come here and don’t realize that you can’t just come and throw pallets on the beach and burn them.”

Cheselske said that only about “1 percent-ish” of the calls his station crew answers are actually illegal fires. But he said his team must fully respond to every emergency call.

“When someone calls 911, we respond with lights and sirens to bonfires on the beach,” he said. “We’re not code enforcement officers; the only thing we can do is if they dug a hole in the sand and are burning wood, we can ask them to put it out and then remove the coals. But very, very few are those.”

Broaddus said already-stretched police forces will be further strained as the end of summer reduces beach teams — which handle the bulk of beach fire calls — from five to two.

Community groups can join the education effort, Broaddus said, and enforcement can be shared with rangers at Mission Bay Park. He did not elaborate.

“There’s room for movement there,” Broaddus said. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I’m not trying to be secretive. I just want to make sure that I’ve got all my ducks in a row before I present it to [the] Parks and Recreation [Department] the correct way.”

Brian Curry of the 12-member Pacific Beach Community Parking District, formed in 2005, delivered a presentation on the advantages and disadvantages of parking meters in the Garnet Avenue business district between Crystal Pier and Fanuel Street.

The 352 parking spaces on and around Garnet that could receive meters cover only spots already restricted to two-hour parking limits. Though the concept has long been discussed, Curry said it got a boost with a recent endorsement by City Council member Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Pacific Beach.

“Jen Campbell’s office approached us and said, ‘How about a pilot program?’” Curry said. “That way we’re not going all out, but we’ll do a one-year pilot and see how it works.”

A proposed one-year pilot program would put metered parking in the Garnet Avenue commercial district in Pacific Beach.
A proposed one-year pilot program would put metered parking in the Garnet Avenue commercial district between Crystal Pier and Fanuel Street in Pacific Beach.
(Bing Maps / PB Monthly)

Based on metered parking in neighborhoods such as the Gaslamp District, Little Italy and Hillcrest, Curry said revenue could reach $100,000 annually. Twenty percent would go toward administrative and maintenance costs, with 45 percent going directly to Pacific Beach and the rest to the city.

A private vendor would fund the installation of meters, and initial revenue would go toward retiring that debt. But, Curry added, “they get paid back relatively quickly based on other case studies we’ve looked at.”

The money could be used for an assortment of projects in the Garnet area, from a shuttle program and traffic calming measures to increased trash collection and weed abatement.

“We were fighting for $20,000 for anything in PB, to get anything done, from the city budget,” Curry said. “Finally, we would have a revenue stream that we could use that is coming from PB and staying in Pacific Beach.”

Curry addressed concerns that metered parking might push drivers to seek free parking on residential streets. He said such a situation already exists without meters and that meters likely would drive vehicles to the 989 parking spaces in less-expensive privately owned lots in that area.

Meter rates have yet to be determined; the city allows a maximum of $2.50 per hour. As for hours of operation, Parking District board member Sara Berns said existing formulas such as 80/20 (an ideal of 80 percent parking spaces taken and 20 percent available at any given time) maximize use of meters elsewhere, “so someone is always able to find a spot.”

“Eleven a.m. is when we start to see congestion forming and then until 8 p.m. so that you get the dinner crowd,” Berns said. “The idea is to create turnover for customer parking.”

Curry said modern parking meter technology collects data on the use of each parking space, which can result in tiers of times and prices.

“It gives us a lot more opportunity to adjust over time on how we want to run our parking meter program,” he said. “We can ... flex to accommodate higher and lower demand, summertime vs. winter, seasonal, time of day, that kind of thing.”

With City Council approval needed for any final plan, Curry said the Parking District will be seeking community input on what the program ultimately will look like.

“We’re looking for feedback,” he said. “We feel like we’ve finally got some traction to maybe make some progress here in PB and to manage our parking, our traffic and our congestion.”