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Aldermen question fire pit rules

A proposed ordinance to regulate backyard campfires drew fire from aldermen during Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting.

“What is the problem that we are trying to regulate?” asked alderman Greg Knight, questioning the need for bringing the ordinance forward at this time.

With the city planning to add fire pits to a downtown park project, city coordinator Joe Harris looked into the rules for fire pits in the city and found that there were none other than a prohibition on open burning prevents garbage burn barrels. Harris prepared the proposed ordinance to regulate campfires and other burning in the city and in the process sought input from the Department of Natural Resources and Medford fire chief Mike Filas.

Harris said the goal was to make it more user friendly so people would know what the rules were in the city, taking the position that without language addressing it the backyard campfires are not allowed.

“We have an ordinance that everyone is violating,” said mayor Mike Wellner about the many backyard campfires around the city.

Alderman Mike Bub said he found the proposed ordinance to be confusing. Knight agreed noting that it seems to prohibit open burning but then includes language to allow people to request permits.

Harris explained that permits would not be needed if the campfires were under 3 feet by 3 feet in size, but would only be for situations such as the high school having a bonfire as part of homecoming.

Aldermen also questioned its applicability to outdoor wood furnaces and even people burning wood inside their homes in fireplaces. Knight noted there are times when atmospheric conditions keep the smoke at ground level, creating a nuisance.

Aldermen also spoke out about a section of the ordinance that requires fires to be fully extinguished by midnight and not be allowed to be started again until noon.

“I am not sure why it needs to be extinguished by midnight,” Knight said.

Harris said the city has received complaints from residents about every time they walk out of their house in the morning smelling smoke.

Alderman Christine Weix said that it should depend on if the people are being a nuisance. She gave the example of someone who works second shift and may want to come home and have a campfire after work. Knight said as long as they weren’t bothering people they should be allowed to. Alderman Dave Roiger agreed saying the city should follow the noise ordinance for any problems.

“I can’t believe our police are going to drive around looking to bust people,” Bub said of the current situation, suggesting more time needs to be taken to revise the proposed ordinance before it is passed.

Knight also questioned the proposed language regarding required setbacks from buildings and property lot lines. He said these would effectively eliminate any backyard campfires in the older portions of the city which have smaller lot sizes.

Bub noted that some people have fire pits built directly into their patios.

With a number of questions, aldermen called for the proposed ordinance to be tabled until it can be clarified to be easier to understand and the section on allowed hours be removed.

“I think this is a good starting point for us,” Wellner said, noting they will make the changes and bring it back to a future committee of the whole meeting.