Outdoor Fires Allowed in More Areas Following 4-1 Council Vote

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018, 12:03 pm
Andrew Graham

Above: Council Member Erik Altmann and Fire Marshal Don Carter

East Lansing’s City Council modified the City’s fire code in a 4-1 vote on Tuesday evening, allowing use of fire pits with permits in more areas of the City. Council Member Erik Altmann was the lone dissenting vote.

The approved ordinance expands to single-family dwellings in RM-8 zoning districts the right to outdoor recreational fires if a resident obtains a permit for the fire pit and meets certain safety requirements. (See map of the areas implicated by the ordinance change.) Currently, permits are available for R-1 and R-2 zones of the City, which are traditional, single-family residential house districts.

Public remarks on the ordinance proceeded the vote. Alex Sagady, a resident of an area where fires are currently permitted with permits, argued against the change, citing adverse environmental effects and potential disruption to neighbors.

“Get rid of the ordinance you do have,” Sagady urged Council, “and get rid of ceremonial, ornamental, recreational use of fires in our community.”

Sagady also highlighted what he called the hypocritical nature of the Council approving more open outdoor fires while simultaneously embracing environmentally-friendly initiatives. Sagady referenced the City-owned and operated public fireplace in the Ann Street Plaza, which a 2015 ELi investigation showed burns about 149,000 cubic feet of natural gas per year.

Countering Sagady was Jeff Winston, a Haslett-born East Lansing resident, who originally proposed the ordinance change to the City. His rationale is that property owners on single-family dwellings in RM-8 zones should be allowed to use their lots like owners of any other single-family lots. He added that, in his own analysis, he found more space between homes in his area than in many R-1 or R-2 zones.

“[It’s] very challenging to think this is not a slam-dunk kind of decision, for families to use properties as they want to,” Winston said. “It’s a fire pit, a controlled fire.” He noted that they would have to meet the same requirements as in other areas of the City where fire pits are permitted. Winston said he liked having an opportunity to sit around a fire with his six children, to “roast marshmallows and enjoy the aesthetics of the night air.”

Winston’s arguments mostly fell in line with those of the four Council Members who approved the ordinance. Several residents also wrote letters to Council supporting allowing fire pits in East Lansing residential neighborhoods.

Before the vote, East Lansing Fire Marshal Don Carter entertained questions from Council Members, mostly detailing how the fire department responds to a complaint about an outdoor recreational fire. Upon receiving a complaint, he said, the fire department would dispatch one truck and ask that the fire be put out, whether the burner has a permit or not.

This is in line with the City’s current practices for fire complaints, Carter said. He said that the matter might be revisited the next day in a conversation between the person who was having the fire and a representative of the fire department. Carter said his job is simply to enforce the existing rules.

According to a memorandum by Planning and Zoning administrator David Haywood, the ordinance change was drafted after an Abbott Parkside neighborhood property owner, Winston, requested the change. Current code requires outdoor fires to be at least 20 feet away from structures and property lines, which, Carter said in the email, has caused “minimal trouble in the past, and when we do [run into problems] it is usually because the user is not following the rules.”

Along with the permit, residents are also supposed to follow regulations, last updated in January 2017 and curated by the fire inspector (Ray Stover) and fire marshal (Carter), regarding the size of an outdoor fire “container” — no bigger than 9 cubic feet. Residents are also not supposed to place a fire pit on a combustible surface, and must keep a source of water nearby.

Much of the ire surrounding the proposed ordinance stems from worries that a fire on one lot can negatively affect neighboring lots or neighborhoods, but Council Member Shanna Draheim expressed her hopes that these issues can be resolved without the fire department or other governmental intervention.

“I would love to see humanity take over rather than having an ordinance around every issue,” Draheim said.

Council Member Aaron Stephens agreed with that sentiment, saying he’d like to find a way to resolve neighborly tensions without governmental intervention.

Before voting against the ordinance, Altmann said he wanted “to clear up misconceptions about property rights” that it isn’t as simple as saying “I own it so I can do what I want.” He said that “in a dense urban setting,” it “doesn’t make sense” to let people think they can do whatever they want with their properties.

“My right to breathe conflicts with their right to do what they want with their property,” said Altmann.

Adding, “I think there is no better use of a municipality’s police powers than to protect someone’s right to breathe,” he said that even so much as a potential complaint was “enough” to enact a city-wide ban on outdoor fires.

Altmann said he had enjoyed camp fires growing up but “not in a city in a cottage, by a lake, surrounded by lots of land. This is a classic zoning issue.” He said that when the City banned smoking in public parks, “people said this is a nanny state. You can do what you want -- I just don’t want to smell your smoke. I think I have a right not to smell your smoke.”

Council Members did indicate that they might revisit this issue, including potentially considering outlawing fire pits throughout the City in consideration of health and environmental issues. Mayor Mark Meadows also indicated he’d like to see something in the permit process that permits the City to revoke a permit if a neighbor makes a complaint.


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