Backyard fire pits: a pleasant diversion on a cool summer evening, or nuisance spewers of toxic, acrid-smelling chemicals and particulates?
The Geneva City Council delved into the debate Monday night as it considered whether to change a law prohibiting most open burning in residential areas.
It ended up directing the city administrator to draw up a proposal to allow the fires, including restrictions, and to figure out what the cost would be of enforcing the proposed rules.
Only two aldermen -- Craig Maladra and Ron Singer -- came out against the fires.
The council is studying the issue at a resident's request. That resident, who favors backyard fires, spoke at the meeting. But so did residents disturbed by the fires.
Currently, you cannot have an open fire in a residential area in Geneva unless it is for cooking. Exceptions are made for ceremonial fires such as the Geneva High School homecoming bonfire -- and those require a special permit from the Geneva Fire Department.
Colin Campbell, the resident who proposed changing the law, did so after being told by firefighters last summer to douse the fire in his yard.
He said he didn't know it was illegal and pointed out that one can buy fire pits at Geneva stores.
"I would hope that the city could come up with a regulation ... that would allow these fire pits in such a way that they do not become a nuisance to people who really can't tolerate it," Campbell said.
He suggested requiring people to obtain a city permit to have chimneys and fire pits, and handing out educational materials to them about fire safety and what kinds of woods not to burn.
Geneva Township Supervisor Patrick Jaeger attended to speak on his own behalf and for senior citizens.
"There is no such thing as good sleeping weather in my neighborhood," he said, because if it is a pleasant evening, several of his neighbors have fires, and his house then fills with smoke.
He also said smoke can be detrimental to people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and many of those sufferers are senior citizens.
"On any night when any reasonable person would like to open all their windows ... I can't do that," he said.
His wife, Julie Jaeger, was more outspoken. She said the fire department won't investigate a complaint about open burning unless the caller can supply an exact address for the fire, which has led to her walking around the neighborhood at midnight to find the fire.
The Jaegers estimated that 70 percent of their neighbors have fire pits.
"It is fun to play loud music, but I can't do that. It is fun to shoot a gun, but I can't do that in my backyard," Julie Jaeger said.
But Alderman Chuck Brown noted the law was written about 20 years ago, when landscape waste was banned from landfills and Kane County outlawed leaf burning. Geneva's aim was to prevent leaf burning, the senior council member said, and manufactured fire pits weren't on the market then.
"Most of my neighbors have either a fire pit or a chimney. They voted with their feet and they voted with their dollars," he said.
Mayor Kevin Burns said he hopes the council will resolve the issue within 45 days, as fall is "recreational fire season."
Cheryl Kibelis and Mark Krueger, a couple from Hinsdale, sent information about the chemicals in smoke to the aldermen. Kibelis addressed the council and disputed the lack of complaints.
"Most people don't want to complain; they don't want to annoy a neighbor, or have a fire truck show up in front of their house, out of embarrassment," she said. But she and her husband, who has asthma, have so many neighbors with fire pits that he can't take in the evening.
Maladra also questioned the data about complaints. He said he receives complaints from constituents, but when he offers to go talking to the offending party, the complainers ask him not to. "They don't want anybody to know they called," he said.