The Mercury News

Laguna Beach balloon ban OK'd

- By Amy Taxin

Environmen­tal advocates are celebratin­g in Laguna Beach — but it won't be with balloons.

The hilly seaside city known for stunning ocean views and rolling bluffs is banning the sale and public use of balloons to curtail the risk of devastatin­g wildfires and eliminate a major source of trash floating near the community's scenic shores.

The Laguna Beach City Council has voted to ban in public the popular mainstay of birthday and graduation parties, whether inflated with helium or not. Beginning in 2024, the balloons cannot be used on public property or at city events.

The move in the community of 23,000 people 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles comes as several California beach cities have limited balloons and the state enacted a law to regulate the types made of foil.

“This is the beginning,” Chad Nelsen, chief executive of the nonprofit environmen­tal organizati­on Surfrider Foundation, said before the vote.

Nelsen said he sees momentum to weed out balloons that tangle with turtles and sea lions, much like he did with the effort to phase out single-use plastic bags. “We're chipping away at all these things we find and trying to clean up the ocean one item at a time.”

Environmen­tal advocates are taking aim at balloons, arguing they are a preventabl­e cause of coastal pollution that threatens animals and seabirds. Balloon debris can tangle wildlife or be ingested by animals that mistake it for food, and more than 3,000 pieces of balloon litter were picked up on ocean beaches by volunteers in Virginia over a five-year period, according to the NOAA Office of Response and Restoratio­n.

In California, fire officials have long warned against foil balloons that can tangle with power lines, causing a power outage and potential fire hazard. Southern California Edison, one of the state's major utilities, reported more than 1,000 foil balloon-related power outages in 2017, affecting more than 1 million customers, according to a state legislativ­e analysis.

But coastal advocates want legislatio­n that addresses balloon litter in addition to fire risk. Coastal communitie­s in Florida, Delaware and New York have adopted rules aimed at curtailing balloon pollution. Several in Southern California have taken similar steps. The city of Manhattan Beach has banned foil balloons on public property and the mass release of latex balloons, while two San Diego County beach cities have barred balloons filled with a gas lighter than air.

Officials in Laguna Beach have long discussed the idea.

The penalty for using balloons would be a $100 fine for a first violation, $200 for a second and $500 for each additional violation within a year.

In addition, a business that repeatedly violates the ordinance could lose its business license.

Balloons still can be used by residents at home, said Mayor Bob Whalen.

“Even the balloon advocates and balloon industry was not opposed to banning them on the beach,” Whalen said, adding that the city moved on the issue both to reduce the risk of fires and to protect marine life along the city's roughly 6 miles of shoreline. “There is going to be some impact on the local distributi­on of balloons, but as I say, people will still find places to buy balloons.”

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