Edina to convert wood-burning park fireplaces to gas

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 19, 2011 - 7:44 PM

A city commission recommended the change, saying wood smoke is harmful to health. One resident warned restrictions on burning wood at home could be next.

The city of Edina's decision to convert two wood-burning fireplaces to natural gas at a popular indoor/outdoor park is raising concerns that the city may eventually start clamping down on residential fire pits, pitting health concerns against personal rights.

Though City Council members said last week that the changes were aimed only at Centennial Lakes Park, resident Sarah Patzloff appeared at the meeting to say she considers the resolution "a slippery slope" toward more regulation.

"I believe it is our right to burn wood fires if we so choose," she said at the meeting. The park conversion, she said, "is not something people in the city want."

As fire pits have grown more popular, there's been a backlash from residents who say the smoke infiltrates their homes, threatens their health and hurts the environment. In Minneapolis, the City Council has asked two citizen advisory committees to examine policies on recreational fires. There have been numerous complaints in suburbs, as well.

In Edina, the council action followed a recommendation from the city's Energy & Environment Commission that three wood-burning fireplaces in Centennial Lakes Park be converted to natural gas. Dianne Plunkett Latham, the group's chairwoman, said the resolution was tied to work on GreenStep Cities, a program of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Fireplaces in the park are one area where the city has control over air quality, she said.

In a carefully footnoted report, the commission said wood smoke is a major source of carbon dioxide and soot, and is hazardous to human health. It said wood smoke contains fine particulates like tobacco smoke but is more concentrated, can trigger asthma attacks, and heightens the risk of emphysema and other lung conditions.

"We know this is controversial, but ... the science is clear on this," Plunkett Latham said. "We have to look at the tradeoff. Here, the tradeoff is only recreational."

Wood fires lend ambience

Two of the Centennial Lakes fireplaces are inside a building where ice skaters change their shoes and snacks are served. The third is outside. While fires are most popular during the winter, the venue is also rented year-round for weddings and other events.

Park staff told the city that there was a "moderate" amount of disappointment about the possible change among visitors, but that conversion to gas would not prevent people from using the facility. Since the fireplaces are already plumbed for gas, the cost of converting all three fireplaces would be about $5,000, with the cost paid back in about seven years.

Not all council members were convinced the change is necessary. While Joni Bennett said the change is aimed not at homeowners but to make a healthful change at one of the top three spots visited in the city, Ann Swenson bridled at converting the outside fireplace.

"When you're stuck indoors [with smoke] it's an entirely different situation than when you're outside," she said.

Mary Brindle said park managers told her no one complained about smoke. She worried that the park ambience could change.

"The atmosphere and mood [the fireplaces] create is part of the reason people go there," she said. "I would not be in favor of switching it."

Mayor Jim Hovland said he enjoyed the smell of a wood-burning fireplace but said it was disingenuous for the council to deny a restaurant's recent application for a wood-burning fireplace while it continues to burn wood in the park.

Advocate cites science

"I make no judgment whatsoever about fire pits on private property and fireplaces indoors," he said. "But I think we have had our level of awareness raised about the danger ... and I think we should contemplate doing something that's in the interest of public health at these three locations."

With a council member absent and a split vote looming, the council agreed 3-1 to convert the indoor fireplaces to natural gas.

Patzloff later said that with anti-smoke activists continually e-mailing and lobbying the council, she wanted to make sure council members heard from the other side.

"They say [the change is] for the carcinogens, but there's a lot of other things we need to ban for carcinogens," she said. "It's really silly ...

"Not only do we not want this conversion done, but don't you dare come after our personal property. It needed to be said."

Plunkett Latham said the commission has not taken a position on recreational fires and does not have the issue on its agenda. But she knows where she stands.

"I cannot speak for anyone else but myself, but if you ask me as an Edina resident, the answer is yes" on ending them, she said. "I have studied the science."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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