Organizers of Long Beach’s popular July 3 fireworks show say they’ve been forced to cancel the event after learning there wasn’t enough time to receive a crucial permit from the California Coastal Commission.

The news “was devastating,” said Don Rodriguez, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Long Beach, which took over as the lead organizer this year.

Rodriguez said his nonprofit had been working with Coastal Commission staff for weeks to get its paperwork in, but after they submitted it, he was told that they’d missed the deadline — a deadline, he said, nobody had told them about.

Coastal Commission staff said the Boys & Girls Club submitted an application in mid-May, but it was incomplete. Even if it were finished, staff would’ve needed weeks if not months to prepare reports about the potential environmental impacts before bringing it to the Coastal Commission for a vote, according to program manager Shannon Vaughn.

Although there was no specific deadline, Vaughn said, “There was just no way” staff could’ve prepared the application in time for a commission at its meeting in mid-June, the only one before July 3.

Complicating this process was the fact that the Boys & Girls Club was handling the application for the first time during a period when fireworks shows across the state are being subjected to stricter environmental scrutiny.

Restaurant owner John Morris, who started Big Bang on the Bay in 2011, was able to produce the fireworks show for years through an expedited exemption process.

Last year, after the Coastal Commission received complaints that the fireworks show was affecting water quality and harming migratory birds, Morris was required to go through the more robust permitting process that included crafting plans to mitigate any harm and pledging to present potential alternatives to fireworks — like laser light shows — in future years.

Crowds watch the fireworks show from the Peninsula at the Big Bang on the Bay in Long Beach, Monday, July 3, 2023. Photo by Sarahi Apaez.

After going through the more rigorous process and defending the fireworks show against a federal lawsuit last year, Morris said he thought the path was clear for someone else to take the reins.

Now, he said, “I’m pissed.”

He accused Coastal Commission staff of intentionally making the process as difficult as possible, setting up the Boys & Girls Club to fail.

“They’ll do anything they can to block it,” Morris said.

He said a small number of environmental activists who complained about the show are ruining the event for the thousands of people who typically pack the streets and beaches around Alamitos Bay and crowd into nearby restaurants like Morris’ Boathouse on the Bay.

Over the past decade, Big Bang has raised $1.7 million for local nonprofits, according to Morris. This year, the Boys and Girls Club was counting on the event as its main fundraiser.

The event is so well-liked that, after learning this year’s show would be canceled, Long Beach city officials sought to intervene.

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The City Manager’s office met with Coastal Commission staff hoping to find a way to expedite the needed permit, but there was no way to get it approved in time, according to city spokesperson Kevin Lee.

Coastal Commission spokesperson Joshua Smith said it was “unfortunate” that Morris hadn’t given the Boys & Girls Club more context about the application process to help them succeed.

“I think what’s frustrating is that Mr. Morris knew this was going to take time,” he said.

Coastal Commission staff reached out to Morris in January and again in February, warning him that time was short to get in an application, according to Smith.

Morris, who said he was in the hospital at the time because of a burst appendix, responded that the application would be in soon.

“And then we just never heard from him again,” Smith said.

Morris said the process was supposed to be easier this year, with 2023’s environmental monitoring — including water testing, an underwater camera and a diver to look for trash — serving as proof that the event didn’t cause any significant harm.

“We did everything right,” he said. “Everything they threw in our face we took care of it.”

Coastal Commission staff said they’re now working with the organizers to try to get Big Bang approved for a later date. Boys & Girls Club CEO Rodriguez said he’s aiming for Labor Day.

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.