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Whitehall outdoor burning ordinance meets growing problem

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Thick smoke billows out of a backyard fire pit, filling the air and neighborhood homes with a burning stench.

The cover of a nearby hot tub shows marks from where the embers have landed.

Yet, when police arrive to complaints from residents in Whitehall who are frustrated by the smell of a neighbor's outdoor fire — causing them to close their windows and stay indoors — they now have no recourse.

“If you don't have an ordinance, you don't have enforcement — it's that simple,” Councilman Harold Berkoben said.

A proposed ordinance that would place restrictions on open burning and fire pits in the borough would give police, fire and code enforcement officers the tools needed to keep outdoor burning from causing a disturbance in the mostly residential town, council President Glenn Nagy said.

“What we tried to do is under no circumstances, if the officer is standing there seeing embers coming up in the air – or melodious odors, offensive odors or a smoky odor – under those circumstances they would have the authority to go over and have the other person extinguish the fire,” police Chief Donald Dolfi said. “I don't know another way around it.”

Whitehall Council last week agreed to put on display for public inspection the latest version of an ordinance that would restrict outdoor burning in the municipality. Council members also agreed to put an ordinance on display that would adopt the 2009 International Fire Code in the borough.

Council could vote on a final draft of both ordinances on April 3.

Changes to the open burning ordinance include the depth of a fire pit allowed in the borough — now limited to 12 inches.

An increasing number of calls from residents complaining about smoke from their neighbor's fire pits led officials to draft the burning regulations, council members said.

The ordinance puts restrictions on what types of materials people can use in their fire pits and how close they can be placed to structures. The wrong material, like wet paper or freshly cut wood, often are what causes excess smoke, Nagy said.

“These things don't need to be bonfires. That's what I'm totally against – having these blazing fires in these backyards,” Whitehall Fire Company Chief Lee Price said. “Sometimes people don't understand they're close enough to a structure that you get radiating heat and you start melting siding off of your sheds, off your house. People don't need to load these things up. OK, if you want to grill some hotdogs, go get some charcoal,” he said.

Councilwoman Kathy DePuy last week raised concerns about having public safety and code enforcement officials determining what “excess smoke” is, sometimes simply with their noses.

“I would not want to put any of our fireman, our policeman going up to a resident and saying, ‘You have excessive smoke.' ‘You don't,'” she said. “I don't know if Lee's nose is better than your nose. Who's going to judge. How do you define excessive?”

Councilman Phil Lahr, a longtime Whitehall fireman, said firefighters and police are the ideal candidates to judge excessive flames.

“From the police departments aspect, we can deal with it. We give people tickets all of the time and they don't agree with it. I have very few people coming up and say ‘ew, ew, ew thank you. I deserved that ticket,'” Dolfi said, noting his department strives for consistency when responding to calls.

“I think you have to understand that there is subjectivity in any call and police on a daily basis have to interpret what they observe and make decisions at that time,” Nagy said.

The purpose of the ordinance is not to overregulate burning in the borough, Nagy said. It simply is to give officials a tool to address a problem.

“We're not going to have crews of search teams going around the borough every night,” Nagy said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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