Despite reservations, city leaders offer open-burn amendments

By: Robert Guttersohn | Royal Oak Review | Published May 21, 2013

ROYAL OAK — After speaking with the Michigan Fire Marshal’s office, City Manager Don Johnson and Fire Chief Chuck Thomas, during a May 6 City Commission meeting, expressed their disapproval of repealing the city’s ban on open burning.

“We believe this poses a fire hazard,” Johnson said. “We believe it poses hazards to health from smoke.”

But if the commission does eventually approve the repeal of the open-burn ordinance, the administration recommended several limitations in an attempt to minimize what it perceived as harm to the community.

The recommended limitations include establishing what defines an outdoor fireplace and prohibiting fires being built on the ground.

The administration also recommended that a repeal not require permits for open burning. Johnson said it would be too laborious to enforce a proper outdoor fireplace.

“We are dealing with a portable device,” Johnson said. “Even if we go there and say everything is fine today, it’s not necessarily fine the next time you burn it.”

It also establishes a time limit for recreational burning, prohibiting it between 11 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.

“We don’t want these going on late because they are usually accompanied by noise,” Johnson said.

Commissioners who have both expressed interest in repealing the ban and been against the repeal criticized several of the administration’s recommended regulations.

At the end of the discussion, the City Commission voted 5-2 to table a decision on having the city attorney draft the new regulations until the administration returns with further information. Commissioner Peggy Goodwin and Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Capello have consistently voted against the repeal and said after the meeting that their dissenting votes were against recreational burning altogether.

Goodwin specifically railed against the part of the limitations allowing residents to still call police if they consider their neighbor’s fire a nuisance, which would authorize the Police Department to order the extinguishment of the fire. Currently, the ban is only enforced if a neighbor calls and complains to the police. 

“What’s the difference?” Goodwin questioned. She added, “Why should we even go down that path when we know the harm smoke causes?”

She then recommended the issue be put on the November ballot.

“Let’s put this issue on the ballot,” she said. “It’s too important and too divisive for this body to decide.”

Commissioner Kyle DuBuc said relying on neighbors to define a nuisance might turn into neighbors calling on one another to settle a personal score.

“There was someone at public comment who said, ‘Having a policy based on neighbors ratting each other out breeds a negative, hostile neighborhood environment,’ and I totally agree,” he said.

DuBuc said the city would have to define what is considered a nuisance and recommended imposing a fine if the ordinance is broken.

Mayor Jim Ellison and the other commissioners requested Johnson to retrieve data from neighboring communities and see if their fire-incident reports and other relevant statistics have increased or decreased since allowing recreational burning.

“We can tap into our neighbors and the experiences they’ve had,” Ellison said.