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Bird Safety Could Trump Fireworks

Coastal Commission, citing possible threat to endangered shorebird, demands Morro Bay get a special permit to hold its Fourth of July event.

May 16, 2004|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Concerned by the threat to an endangered shorebird, the California Coastal Commission has told the city of Morro Bay that it needs a special state permit to hold its annual Fourth of July fireworks display.

People in the fishing port community are fighting the order. "We're basically questioning why we need a permit for a 15-minute event we've been doing every year," said Mayor William Yates.

The commission is worried that shooting off fireworks from a barge in the bay, as the city has done for many years, could disturb the Western snowy plover, an endangered species. The commission is also concerned about peregrine falcons that nest on Morro Rock, just offshore of restaurants and fishing boats.

Morro Bay City Atty. Rob Schultz said he knew of only one other city, Santa Cruz, that was required to obtain such a permit for its Fourth of July celebration. That city blocks off the beach and charges a fee to attend, unlike Morro Bay, said Schultz.

"Lots of places have fireworks," said Diane Landry, executive director of the commission's Central Coast office. "But not every place has plovers."

Efforts to save the plover have been going on for years, to the irritation of some in town who think threats to the plover community in the Sand Spit beach area are overblown.

Each year, beaches are closed during the birds' prime nesting season, from March through September.

Landry agreed that the state has been aggressive in its efforts to safeguard the plover. "A lot of people are very concerned" about saving the bird, she said.

Morro Bay, on the other hand, is suing the government to remove the plover from the endangered species list.

The latest conflict began April 20, when the Coastal Commission sent a letter to the Chamber of Commerce recommending that the city obtain a coastal development permit for the fireworks show. "Temporary events that have a potential for adverse impacts to sensitive plants and animals require a coastal development permit," the letter said.

City officials say the permit requirement is an unnecessary burden. "We're a little baffled," said Mayor Yates. At the same time, he insisted, "We're going to proceed" with the fireworks show.

The April letter asked the city to submit an application by May 7 and threatened unspecified penalties for a failure to comply. But it appeared Friday that a compromise might yet be found.

Schultz said the city was consulting with state and federal wildlife agencies to make sure its preparations would not bother the birds. He said that should prove the city was taking seriously its responsibilities.

Last year, the city considered moving the event to a local park, but went back to the barge when concerns were raised in town over the danger to the birds.

Mike Watson, a planner for the Coastal Commission, said it was possible the permit requirement could be waived if the city showed it was making appropriate efforts to coordinate its plans with wildlife experts. "It's a complicated, delicate matter we're trying to work out with the city," he said.

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