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City Bans Wood-burning
Fireplaces in New Homes

Monday, September 25, 2017

By Bianca Kaplanek, Builder

DEL MAR, CALIFORNIA – Anyone building a new home or remodeling more than half of an existing one will not be allowed to install a wood-burning fireplace.

To ensure the prohibition is not time consuming to create, council members at the September 18 meeting directed staff to craft an ordinance based on what other cities have done.

For simplicity, they also opted to limit the ban to residential construction so if won’t affect businesses that want to use smokers or wood-burning pizza ovens.

Interest in the topic began in December 2016 when the Design Review Board (DRB) received an application to install two wood-burning chimneys that would feature pollutant mitigation technology to reduce particulate matter and carbon monoxide emissions.

The project was approved with the condition that the fireplaces associated with the chimneys be gas-burning-only to avoid adversely affecting the health or safety of the neighborhood or creating a private or public nuisance.

The decision was appealed by the City Council three months later. But the issue sparked concern among council and DRB members, who decided to review studies of purification technologies.

According to the staff report, their research cited evidence that catalytic technologies “may not provide the expected mitigation for potential negative impacts of wood combustion.”

Under current guidelines, property owners are encouraged but not required to use gas-burning devices only. In April the DRB voted 6-1 to recommend that the City Council consider prohibiting wood-burning fireplaces and stoves in new construction.

To make a point, resident Rich Ehrenfeld showed a video featuring a house with a burning cigarette where the chimney should be. He said the analogy may be extreme but it makes sense.

“If I’m sitting next to someone smoking a cigarette, I don’t care about the overall air quality,” he said. “It’s the same for sensitive receptors. They can’t work in their yards if someone is using a wood-burning fireplace.

“A lot of data points to … maybe gas is better for the environment,” he added. “Gas is not great. It’s not the ultimate thing to burn gas. But it’s a whole lot better and the C02 that’s given off by burning gas in a fireplace is about half the C02 that’s given up in a wood-burning fireplace.”

He said the prohibition should result in wood-burners phasing themselves out over time.

“I’m not going to somebody’s house and being the fireplace police, but I sure think we owe it to the citizens to make a town where they can breathe,” Ehrenfeld said.

“The health impacts are really profound here,” councilman Dwight Worden said. “I came at this thinking they probably were not that significant, but they really are significant. What’s coming out of fireplaces is worse than cigarette smoking on the streets, which we don’t allow.”

Worden said catalytic converters could actually make things worse.

The ban was approved in two motions. The Council voted 4-1 to move forward with preparing an ordinance to disallow wood-burning fireplaces in new residential construction.

“I don’t see the urgency and I’m really concerned about us doing something that isn’t well-thought out,” said mayor Terry Sinnott, who opposed the action.

Calling the motive and goal reasonable, he wasn’t sure how the action could be enforced.

“I don’t know how you ban wood fireplaces,” he said. “Somebody’s got to convince me you can do that.”

Rather than restrict or prohibit wood-burning devices, he said he would prefer to incentivize and promote conversion to gas.

In a separate motion, the council voted 3-2 to require homeowners to convert existing wood-burning fireplaces to gas if they are remodeling more than 50% of their house.

Sinnott and Dave Druker were opposed. Druker said it wouldn’t be right to force people to convert a fireplace if the room in which it was located wasn’t part of the remodel plans.

He also stressed that the new rule will not affect existing wood-burning fireplaces or stoves.

Ehrenfeld, who is part of the DRB subcommittee tasked with researching the issue, said his group will look into providing incentives for homeowners who may be considering conversion.

Druker said the concept was interesting but perhaps not the best use of city funds.

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