Swampscott beach fire debate heats up

Phillips Beach in Swampscott is pictured in February 2017.


SWAMPSCOTT — The Conservation Commission didn’t say no to cooking fires on Phillips Beach, but they didn’t say yes either.

A public hearing was held during a conservation commission meeting Thursday night, regarding the notice of intent filed by the Board of Selectmen to allow residents to have cooking fires on Phillips Beach.

The discussion was continued to the commission’s next meeting, with no vote taken. Conservation commission members raised concerns about how the fires would be regulated to protect the vegetation and about the timeframe they would be allowed. Patrick Jones, a selectman, asked for the continuance to discuss the concerns with the board and possibly limit the number of days and hours the fires would be allowed.

The conservation commission reluctantly gave the go-ahead for cooking fires on Fisherman’s Beach last July, after deciding the area did not fall under its jurisdiction, because of the lack of vegetation that would be affected.

But the commission found that the conservation area at Palmer Pond and dune vegetation would be altered at Phillips Beach, and the activity would apply to the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, leading them to require town officials to file a notice of intent for fires there.

Jones said the request was for up to four cooking fires in designated areas, where a permit would have to be obtained by the fire department. The time proposed was 6 to 11 p.m. with a $25 nonrefundable charge and a $50 deposit, which is meant to give incentive for people to clean up the area. Fires would have to be extinguished by water, and could not be buried.

“The reason we’re bringing it forward is because many residents continue to ask for this overwhelmingly,” Jones said.

Jones said even with no fires being allowed at Phillips Beach, there were still illegal fires occurring last year. The intent is to regulate them, he said.

Tom Ruskin, chairman of the commission, said last July that he was concerned with the vegetation going up in smoke. He said on Thursday that last summer was a compromise, with the commission finding that there was no threat to vegetation on Fisherman’s Beach, and allowing beach fires there. He said the commission has to weigh the benefits for the town of having beach fires versus protecting the environment. The commission has been liberal for the past 10 years, he said, in allowing people to enjoy the town.

“Now you’re asking us to threaten one of the most precious gems in town, this Palmer(s) pond,” Ruskin said. “If that place burns down, that’s it. It’s not worth experimenting. We don’t take chances experimenting with something like Palmer(s) Pond.”

Ruskin said he knows the commission would say “yes” to the beach fires on Phillips Beach if they could be ensured that the vegetation would be protected. If there couldn’t be a police or fire detail for regulation during the proposed timeframe for cooking fires, he suggested having fewer days they could be allowed. He said maybe the town could only afford to have a detail to monitor the fires from 7 to 11 p.m. for two days, and maybe they should only be allowed on a Friday and Saturday.

Ruskin said the regulation could also be someone getting paid to monitor the cooking fires and call police if something goes amiss.

The system last year on Fisherman’s Beach was, once permission was granted, a placard was given to someone to mark their fire. The fire must be attended to at all times by an adult who lives in town. Fire Chief Kevin Breen said up to four permits can be issued for Fisherman’s Beach.

Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.


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