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Open-hearth fireplace at Libby restaurant approved

Editor | November 24, 2020 7:00 AM

The Shed has permission to light up its open-hearth fireplace so long as the smoke emitted does not exceed standards outlined in county environmental health regulations.

The Lincoln County Board of Health granted the Libby restaurant a variance to operate its fireplace during a Nov. 10 meeting. That ended a nearly nine-month process that began in February after health officials received a complaint that restaurant staff were operating in the fireplace and a pizza oven in violation of an air pollution ordinance.

“There are enough stresses on businesses right now,” said County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1), who sits on the board and ultimately joined the majority in approving the variance. “I want to get it moved forward.”

Under the county’s regulations, solid fuel burning devices, which include fireplaces, require a permit to operate. But the health department, which oversees that process, lacks the authority to approve an open-hearth fireplace. It is not one of the permissible types of burning devices listed in the regulations.

Jake Mertes, environmental health specialist for the county, told board members that without a variance, all he could do was enforce the rule as it was written — and ban use of the fireplace.

“As far as I what I can recommend, I can only recommend — as the guy in charge— that they follow the rule. It’s the same thing I do with planning, I say, ‘This is the rule,’” Mertes said. “You [the health board] have to decide. … To be fair and maintain the integrity of my position, I have to enforce it.”

County staff had measured the opacity of the smoke emitted by the fireplace in the run up to the meeting, Mertes said. Dustin Webb, a department employee, said he registered the opacity at 5.8 percent, well below the county’s 20 percent threshold for an otherwise permissible solid fuel burning device.

Discussion following the vote largely revolved around whether the variance exempted The Shed from other portions of the air pollution ordinance. Mertes asked for clarity after wondering whether he still held the authority to compel the restaurant owners and staff to keep the smoke below the 20 percent opacity threshold.

Owner Cora Gilmore disagreed. She argued that doing so would allow anyone to call county officials down on her head whenever smoke was visible. She described it as a potential “waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Gilmore pointed to a perceived increase in divisiveness in the community as an added concern.

“Anytime somebody in our community can say, ‘Hey, I see some smoke,’ I can be back here [before the board] again,” Gilmore said.

Mertes said he hoped to avoid issuing a fine, but wanted the ability to tell restaurant staff to tamp down on the smoke.

“We have no intention of issuing tickets, but what we do want to be able to say is you have a [bad] stack of wood and you need to cease.”

Peck took a different read of the variance. He told Mertes and Gilmore that the variance only approved use of the fireplace. It did not exempt the restaurant from following the remaining regulations.

“Just because they have a variance for the device, it doesn’t give them carte blanche,” Peck said. “Everybody still has to meet that standard.”

Were the region to see an inversion, Peck said he expected Gilmore to eschew the fireplace “just like we would expect anybody else.”

The health board granted The Shed approval to use its wood-fired pizza oven in May.