Overflowing piles of food waste, propane burning on a wooden structure, bacon grease dripping into the ocean — the Pier’s unlicensed vendors are cooking up a smorgasbord of problems and City Council hopes a new ordinance will offer a solution.

During the weekends there are now over 100 vendors on and around the Pier, the vast majority of whom do not have a license certifying they are following appropriate health and fire safety practices. This has led to the mass dumping of liquid and solid waste on the beach and in public spaces, and raised serious concern around the Pier’s fire vulnerability.

With existing code enforcement efforts unable to scratch the surface of the problem, the City has decided to add new tools to its kit. These come in the form of three rules, which prohibit the unpermitted use of combustible fuels on and around the Pier, the dumping of commercial trash in public receptacles and the dumping of liquid waste in public areas.

Per Santa Monica’s 2019 vending ordinance, vendors are already banned from setting up shop within a 100 feet of the Pier, with the exception of a dozen licensed carts leasing space on the Pier.

This rule is not being enforced to any measurable degree. The question lingering after Council’s recent decision is whether the new rules will be. City staff expressed optimism.

“We absolutely expect to see an improvement in both the volume of unpermitted vending on and around the Pier and most importantly the public health and public safety impacts,” said Deputy City Manager Anuj Gupta.

The key difference between the initial vending regulations and the latest measures enacted, is that the latter will be enforceable with a misdemeanor citation whereas the former are only enforceable with an administrative citation.

Understanding the significance of this difference and the origin of the Pier’s vendor problems requires a look at S.B. 946, which decriminalized street vending across the state.

“Since the 2018 adoption of California State Bill 946, unlicensed commercial vending on the Pier and beach has increased dramatically,” said Jim Harris, executive director of the Pier Corporation. “The amount of individual carts and vendors on the pier has grown exponentially in recent months.”

S.B. 946 was enacted because many sidewalk vendors were illegal immigrants and the criminal enforcement of vending rules exposed them to significant risk of deportation. Once the bill was passed it became the responsibility of individual municipalities to develop and enforce their own permitting processes and rules to manage sidewalk vending.

Violations of vending rules are enforceable with an administrative citation, which is a ticket that one pays off with a fee, and are not enforceable with any criminal citation. In many locations this shift has supported economic opportunities for immigrant and low-income workers, without generating negative community impacts.

“This law applies all across the state and we haven’t seen quite the same types of problems in other cities as we’ve seen on the Pier,” said State Senator Ben Allen, who represents Santa Monica under the 26th District and voted for S.B. 946. “I’m interested in working with Santa Monica to connect them with other cities to come up with good solutions.”

The issues of unpermitted vending on the Pier began with Senate Bill 946, but snowballed to the state they are in today because of the challenges the City faced and failed to overcome in enforcing its vending rules.

While some blame can be placed on the failure of Code Enforcement, the Fire Department and Police Department to direct significant and collaborative attention on pier vendors, the unique issues the Pier faced during the pandemic must also be taken into account.

“All of the other event spaces in LA were completely shut down for up to a year or more,” said Gupta. “The Pier and the beach reopened relatively quickly and got crowded pretty quickly last summer, so we were really the only game in town in many ways for vendors to make money.”

The pace and quantity of vendors descending on the pier outmatched the bandwidth Code Enforcement officers had to carry out impactful education and enforcement measures. At this time officers’ primary attention was on ensuring businesses were compliant with Covid-19 health and safety measures.

Code Enforcement currently assigns three staff members, and is seeking a fourth, to manage the area on and around the Pier from Thursday through Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. A lot of this time is dedicated to education efforts. Officers have had very limited success using administrative citations as an enforcement mechanism for unlicensed vendors as this requires vendors to comply and hand over their ID.

“That creates a significant challenge of vendors not cooperating and voluntarily presenting identification and us having no ability to compel them to do so,” said Sharon Guidry, code enforcement manager. “Once code enforcement begins to approach they will take off and run from the officers. We don’t chase violators, so that creates a problem.”

The new rules hope to find more success by targeting specific damaging practices and having a more powerful criminal enforcement mechanism that can be utilized if necessary.

The most imminent danger is the rampant unregulated use of combustible fuels on and around the wooden Pier. Vendors cooking meats generate grease and fat, which increases the chance of a fire starting on the Pier deck.

“The situation needs to be addressed immediately, especially since the Pier’s current fire suppression system underneath the Pier deck is not sufficiently designed to extinguish a fire above the deck,” said Harris.

According to Fire Marshal Eric Binder, officers will begin engaging with the new ordinance by educating vendors on the requirement and process of gaining a combustible fuel permit. Vendors must have already obtained a license to vend in Santa Monica to gain a fuel permit, which is a separate process that the majority of Pier vendors have not undergone.

Binder said after education is exhausted, personnel will move to an administrative citation and then formal enforcement, such as an infraction or misdemeanor, if the problem persists. The Fire Marshal also now has the power to impound unregulated fuels.

“I don’t think in my 21 year career that I’ve issued an infraction or a misdemeanor, so it’s new roads for us and we have to work with our City Attorney’s office on how we do that,” said Binder.

Fire prevention staff do not currently have the capacity to dedicate personnel to the Pier within a regular weekly schedule and will rely on overtime staffing to carry out these new education and enforcement efforts.

The two other new rules focus on commercial trash and liquid dumping on and around the Pier. Both issues are currently outside Public Work’s capacity to clean-up, despite efforts to increase trash containers and collection frequency around the Pier.

“We currently have, in the 1550 lot alone, eight containers that are solely for the purpose of capturing waste generated by illegal commercial activities, which is the same setup that we have for Casa Del Mar, which is a 129 room hotel with a 270 person restaurant,” said Peter James, Public Works COO. “We’re at the point where the illegal dumpers simply leave trash out in the lot.”

Liquid waste dumping is also occurring regularly on sidewalks, through the Pier’s deck boards and by storm drains.

“Our brand new beach bike and pedestrian path is now stained with bacon fat and cooking oils, which is not only unsightly, but also presents a hazard to users of that space,” said James.

Both liquid and solid waste dumping has an impact on aquatic wildlife. It also attracts vermin, which disrupts ecosystems and poses a health risk to beach users.

“Water quality is worse this year than it was last year,” said James. “I don’t think we can point the finger directly to this type of activity, but it certainly is a contributing factor.”

The police department will assist with enforcing the ban on liquid and commercial waste dumping through a combination of overtime staff assigned to the Pier area and Downtown Services Officers.

Enforcement overall will be a collaborative effort between SMPD, SMFD and Code Enforcement, the logistics of which are still being worked out. All three entities have emphasized a desire to focus on education efforts first before utilizing the new infraction and misdemeanor mechanisms.

“It’ll be a progressive enforcement approach really leading with education and engagement seeking voluntary compliance, so that we don’t have to do enforcement,” said Gupta. “But it (enforcement) is within the ordinance an option on the table to protect public safety and protect against the fire risk and environmental and public health damage that has been occurring.”

Clara@smdp.com