Illegal beach fires, street vendors ordinance focus at PB Town Council meeting

Illegal beach fires that leave hot embers in the sand were one of the hot topics at the July 21 PB Town Council meeting.
Illegal beach fires that leave hot embers in the sand were one of the hot topics at the July 21 PB Town Council meeting.

The Pacific Beach Town Council rediscovered its groove at its latest meeting.

Residents attending the July 21 meeting on Zoom and Facebook complained about issues ranging from illegal beach fires to a long-awaited street vendors ordinance. Department spokespeople and government representatives attributed any problems to technical legal points or the reshuffling of responsibility to different parties.

But Town Council members also heralded the resumption of ordinary social interaction amid the COVID-19 pandemic by announcing the return of the Concert on the Green to Kate Sessions Park on Aug. 8.

“I think this is just a reopening of the community and I’d really like for the whole community to be there,” said Town Council President Marcella Bothwell. “We’re very excited to resume at least one Concert on the Green.”

In a continuation from last year during the pandemic, illegal beach fires are once again a hot topic, topping the grievance list across public safety departments.

Residents have complained that embers from beach fires that are not properly covered with sand can smolder for hours and cause severe burns to anyone stepping on them unaware the next day. In addition, smoke from fires in undesignated areas can enter nearby homes, causing health risks, especially for people with respiratory preconditions, they said.

“We’re trying to contain the situation,” lifeguard Sgt. Ric Stell said at the meeting. “I know it’s probably one of the biggest complaints that I get on an ongoing basis.”

Capt. Rich Marcello of local Fire Station 21 said the recent designation of such fires as “warming” fires for individuals dislocated by the loss of jobs or homes by the pandemic has made it difficult for his department to address the problem.

“Believe me, we deal with those sometimes two times, sometimes 10, sometimes 15 times a night,” Marcello said. “Aside from the calls we’re running, that’s a pretty large increase in call volume for us to go and just address those things.”

“I guess because of COVID and the amount of displaced people, there are a lot of different technicalities that are going on,” he said. “And with that, the beach fire is considered a warming fire. So we are not allowed to address that and shut it down.”

Some residents countered that, based on their experiences, most of the fires at the beach are recreational in nature.

“That doesn’t make a ton of sense, especially in July,” Bothwell said about the idea of “warming fires.”

“That sounds like there’s no regulation at all about the beach fires,” said Liz Segre, Town Council office manager.

Marcello said the moratorium on dousing beach fires is only temporary but offered no timeline when it would be lifted.

Stell said lifeguard personnel will continue to monitor beachgoers for fires and issue citations where feasible. But he said his staff is usually gone before the fires start.

“You see it every night and it’s a big deal for you because you get the smoke in your houses and stuff like that,” he said. “It doesn’t go unnoticed. I have staff that’s completely dedicated to warning and doing what we can before evening falls and those fires start.”

The audience also expressed frustration when Kohta Zaiser, Mayor Todd Gloria’s District 2 representative, was questioned about a long-anticipated street vendor ordinance to regulate unrestricted access to the Boardwalk and elsewhere by peddlers.

In 2019, state legislation prohibited all criminalization of street vending but left it to local municipalities to write regulations for their jurisdictions. San Diego drafted an ordinance late in that year under then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer, but it was mothballed with the onset of the pandemic.

Zaiser said Gloria’s administration took up the effort quickly after he assumed the office, with staff surveying street vendors directly in the spring for input to improve the 2019 draft. However, the mayor soon encountered resistance.

“We had pro-vendor advocates reach out to our office and basically lobbying the councilmembers of their districts to kill the ordinance,” Zaiser said. “It was clear that they were hopeful for no ordinance whatsoever, not even one that’s accessible for a vendor.”

Even without an ordinance, county officials have faced obstacles in attempts to supervise and properly license vendors offering food service, Zaiser said.

“They have run into hostile interactions, where vendors are getting violent or will flat out refuse,” he said. “You see things like a jar of mayo that’s been sitting out in the sun for 12 hours. Who knows what kind of food they’re handing out without that type of license.”

According to Zaiser, opposition to the ordinance comes from advocates and councilmembers representing inland districts, where street vendors have worked the same street corner for 20 years. That contrasts sharply with many street vendors typically found in coastal locations.

“We aren’t seeing folks in your beach communities that have been here for decades, who are well liked and respected in the community,” Zaiser said. “They’re oftentimes folks from out of town who come in and set up overnight and block the public right-of-way.”

“These are not people just trying to make a living from San Diego,” Bothwell said. “These are people coming from Arizona, etc. We’re not trying to criminalize our San Diegans’ behavior.”

Originally confined to coastal communities, the problem has expanded to downtown, Balboa Park, the Gaslamp District and elsewhere, Zaiser noted. District 2 Councilmember Jennifer Campbell is now spearheading the effort to draft and pass an ordinance, Zaiser said, and deferred all questions about timelines and specifics to her office.

However, Zaiser encouraged residents from PB and other affected neighborhoods to continue lobbying for an ordinance as Campbell moves through the legislative process.

“Those pictures and those examples of them blocking the public right-of-way, of them coming the night before and chaining up their equipment and just taking up space on the Boardwalk and the parks; those are incredibly helpful” he said.

“Because we need to showcase that this situation in your community is far different than the situation in a neighborhood more inland...As Council District Two is moving forward with this and building up their case, you guys are going to be vital in that process to garner support from other councilmembers.”

In other matters, the Town Council announced the recipients of the Dan Froelich PB Schools Community Service Awards for outstanding volunteer service by local students. This year’s winners from PB Middle School are Gideon Mandel, Sophie Wilson and Nuhamin Woldeyes.

For the main presentation, past president Alan Harris, with commentary from Eve Anderson, anchored the latest installment of the history of the PB Town Council in the ongoing series honoring the organization’s 70th anniversary this year.

Focused on the 1970s and 80s, Harris showed the efforts and struggles involved in opening Sail Bay to public use, creating the now-defunct Block Party, saving Rose Creek Cottage and getting a sign ordinance.

“I’m just going to talk briefly and just kind of remind us when we’re working on issues, how long things sometimes take” Harris said. “You may not be here for the entire duration but if we’re persistent, they do finally come to a resolution.”