The coastal enclave of Del Mar, among the first California cities to ban single-use plastic bags, polystyrene take-out containers and cigarettes in public places, is now taking aim at wood-burning fireplaces.
City council members have asked staffers to draw up regulations that would ban wood-burning fireplaces in all new residential construction. They also plan to require any homeowner who spends more than 50 percent of the value of their house on a remodeling project to include a retrofit of any existing fireplace to burn only natural gas.
“The health impacts are really profound here,” said Councilman Dwight Worden. “What’s coming out of fireplaces is really worse than cigarettes, which we don’t allow.”
Wood smoke may be hazardous, but it is not a significant pollutant in San Diego County, said Robert Kard, a director at the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, which works with cities and other agencies throughout the county to improve air quality.
“We just don’t have that problem,” Kard said.
Smoke is more of a problem in regions that often get stagnant air, such as the state’s Central Valley, known for its tule fogs, and Los Angeles, with its smog, he said, and some cities there ban or restrict wood burning when air conditions are poor. In San Francisco, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has prohibited wood-burning fireplaces and stoves in new construction since 2016.
Del Mar would be the first city in San Diego County to ban wood-burning fireplaces, Kard said.
“We think it is a great idea,” he said. “Gas is a lot cleaner. You are not polluting your indoor air, and you are not bothering your neighbors. It’s never good to breathe smoke.”
Except for people living in the mountains or the desert, almost no one in the county heats their home with a fireplace.
“We are really long past needing a traditional fireplace,” Kard said.
Del Mar City Council members on Monday, Sept. 18, voted 4-1 for the proposal, noting the adverse effects of wood smoke on people’s health and the environment.
Only Mayor Terry Sinnott opposed the idea, saying the ban would be difficult to enforce and that instead he would rather promote incentives for people to burn natural gas instead of wood in their fireplaces.
Councilman Dave Druker emphasized that the ban would only be on new construction.
“We are not going to go back and make everybody take out their wood-burning fireplaces,” Druker said.
At a recent meeting, no one spoke in favor of a flaming hearth, its cozy warmth or its familiar smell, but two Del Mar residents supported the fireplace ban.
“We on the Design Review Board have been struggling with this for years,” said board member Bill Michalsky. “We want to protect the neighbor upwind.”
It’s not the overall air quality that matters as much as the fireplace next door, said Rick Ehrenfeld, a former Del Mar planning commissioner and review board member.
“If I’m sitting next to someone who’s smoking a cigarette, I don’t care what the overall air quality is,” Ehrenfeld said.
A ban on wood-burning fireplaces in new residential construction will eventually eliminate them in all homes, he said.
Pizza shops and other restaurants that use wood for cooking would not be affected by the proposed ban.
The council also considered requiring a catalytic converter or some other device on fireplaces to control smoke, but decided an outright ban would be easier to enact and enforce.
“I say we either ban them or allow them,” Druker said. “Keep it simple.”
A spokesman for the San Diego County Building Industry Association, Senior Public Policy Advisory Mike McSweeney, said Tuesday, Sept. 19, he hadn’t heard of Del Mar’s proposal, and that he would need to discuss it with association members before taking a stance.
“It sounds like a solution in search of a problem,” McSweeney said.
City staff members are expected to present a proposed ordinance to the council next month. The work will be done in-house, using examples adopted in other jurisdictions, so the costs should be limited to staff time.
Worden suggested the staff also look at ways the city could provide incentives for people to convert existing wood-burning fireplaces to natural gas.
Del Mar’s council unanimously voted in February 2016 to ban single-use plastic bags, and followed that up a few months later with a prohibition on take-out food containers made of polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam.
In 2014, the city banned the use of battery-powered e-cigarettes in all places where public smoking is prohibited.
Smoking has been prohibited at the city’s beaches and parks since 2006.
– Phil Diehl is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune