Noisy River Mouth Parties May Be Silenced : Del Mar City Council to Vote Sept. 19 on Ban of Liquor, Fires on Beach
Wendy Vandenberg, who is 17, blonde and loves the beach, thinks that River Mouth Beach in Del Mar is the most mellow and romantic place in Southern California.
“I had my 15th, 16th and 17th birthday parties at River Mouth,” said the high school senior from Los Angeles. “All the kids love to party there because the beach fires are so romantic and the crowd is so mellow. It’s the only place to go.”
But now River Mouth--located west of the Del Mar fairgrounds and Highway 101, just north of where the San Dieguito River reaches the ocean--is the object of a political tug of war that pits youthful beach-goers against Del Mar politicians and homeowners.
On Sept. 19, the Del Mar City Council will consider a suggestion to ban both beach fires and drinking at River Mouth in an effort to reduce rowdiness and eliminate dangerous and unsightly debris left by revelers.
Littered With Garbage
Nestled at Del Mar’s northern boundary next to Solana Beach, the beach is often littered with shards of glass, spent charcoal, embers and twisted nails from wooden pallets used as fire builders.
Fires are supposed to be restricted to a nine concrete fire rings, but illegal fires, some of bonfire proportions, are common.
With local passions already inflamed over the fire-and-alcohol ban proposal, a late-night protest demonstration at River Mouth during the insufferably hot Labor Day weekend erupted into a melee between sheriff’s deputies and several hundred young people.
Nine persons were arrested. Vandenberg watched from afar--her birthday ruined.
A proposal to impose new rules on any beach is likely to create a stir, but when that beach is River Mouth, the opposition is loud and heart-felt. River Mouth--an unofficial name not to be found on maps--is unique.
“There’s no place like River Mouth, never was, never will be,” said Roger Samson, 19, of Oceanside. “It’s the best for all-night partying, the best for finding or bringing a girl. The beach fires seem to attract them.”
There are other beaches in North County that allow fires, and other beaches that allow drinking. But River Mouth is one of the few that permits both.
The triangular beach is easily accessible from Interstate 5, and parking is available though not plentiful. Best of all, the beach is tucked away from the reach of the nightly high tide--a rarity.
Except for a bluff-top home on the northern end, the closest homes are across the river, giving River Mouth an illusion of privacy and sanctuary from homeowners who might complain about late-night parties. Homeowners, however, say the sound travels appallingly well and that noise is a constant problem.
The predominant patrons of River Mouth are the hard-body younger set interested in sunshine and socializing. But there are other groups, too.
Popular Among Parents
The beach is popular with parents of small children. Wading in the river and the lagoon just east of Highway 101 is safer for children than risking the surf.
And during the Del Mar racing season, the beach serves as a dining and relaxation spot for dozens of jockeys, grooms, trainers, “walkers” and other backstretch employees--almost all Mexican nationals--who barbecue chicken and beef over large fires.
“We call it Horsemen’s Beach,” said Edwin Cotto, 29, a jockey. “I’ve been coming here for eight summers, and some of the guys have been coming even longer. It’s a way for us to get away from the track for a while.”
It is River Mouth’s specialness that has now bred a beach-sized headache for Del Mar.
“Every teen-age kid in the county knows about the beach at Del Mar,” City Manager Kay Jimno said. “The crowd at that beach thinks it has a God-given right to do whatever it wants.”
For Del Mar, the River Mouth flap represents a civic role reversal. Many of those calling for a crackdown have long prided themselves on being champions of greater beach access for the public.
They bristle at the notion that the River Mouth controversy is really a remnant of Del Mar elitism--a holdover from the long-ago days when signs were posted to hoodwink out-of-towners into thinking that beaches were for Del Mar residents only.
“I don’t feel it’s the city’s responsibility to provide a location for hundreds of kids to assemble and drink and throw sand-filled bottles at sheriff’s deputies,” Councilwoman Brooke Eisenberg said.
Partying Never Ends
Bluff-top homeowner Nelda Smart said that despite a city regulation saying all fires must be out by 10 p.m., the fires and partying never die out.
“Sometimes the fires start up at 2 a.m.--they’re screaming like maniacs,” she said. “It is unbelievable what goes on . . . We have the 4th of July celebration every night down there, and I’m sick of it.”
Smart said sheriff’s deputies seem to ignore her pleas for help.
Deputies say that they engage in an almost nightly game of cat-and-mouse with River Mouth regulars who promise to put out their fires and go home. As soon as the deputy departs, the regulars quickly return to restoke the flames.
Among those calling the loudest for new restrictions is Paul Allen, a Sandy Lane homeowner south of the river.
Allen, 50, a film maker whose credits include collaboration with Bruce Brown on the epic surf movie “Endless Summer,” says the environmental health of the beach is at stake.
“I’ve dedicated my life to the beach,” Allen said. “The beach is a place to go and experience nature at its best. We do not have the right to make it a dumping ground for charcoal briquettes, nails and broken glass. The beach is not the place to get drunk and yell and scream.”
Fellow homeowner Stuart Schreiber agreed.
“I’m disgusted at what’s going on down there,” he said. “This is a non-issue . . . This isn’t a civil rights issue of the 1960s.”
That view, however, is not shared by all homeowners.
“Let’s lighten up a little bit,” Leota Heathman told the Del Mar City Council last week. " . . . The kids need a little space.”
River Mouth devotees fear that Del Mar residents, who have never been comfortable with sharing their beaches, are now trying to punish the many for the sins of a few.
“The problems are caused by maybe 5% of the crowd, mostly drunk teen-agers,” said James Scott, 26, a Cardiff carpenter. “So why don’t they just crack down on underage drinking? And hire people to sweep the beach each day for $4 an hour? I think Del Mar just wants us to leave, and this is a good excuse.”
Deputies say the Sept. 4 confrontation began when the bolder members of the crowd, already hell-bent on defying the law, began hurling rocks, bottles and cans filled with sand. A rock hit the Sheriff’s Department helicopter.
Protest organizer Mike Tostado, 22, an Encinitas resident and computer chip marketing specialist, said the confrontation escalated sharply after the crowd saw him being treated roughly.
“I had a sign saying Keep the Mouth Open, and they threw me down forcefully,” Tostado said. “Their attitude was: Anybody who was there wanted to cause trouble. The helicopter just kicked up sand and threw embers everywhere.”
The incident had begun shortly after 10 p.m. when a pair of deputies started asking that the 10 p.m. curfew on fires be observed.
Faced with what they felt was threatening defiance, the deputies ordered the beach “closed” and called for reinforcements--in all, 40 deputies and eight officers from the California Highway Patrol responded.
Seven young adults and two minors--all Anglo males--were arrested for failing to disperse and unlawful assembly, misdemeanors. The minors were released to their parents, the adults were booked and released without bail.
The next morning the beach was awash with a cross-section of litter: charcoal, beer cans, and empty bottles of beer, tequila and Champagne. (All glass containers are supposed to be banned from the beach.)
Sheriff’s Capt. Bob Apostolos, commander of the Encinitas station, said he believes deputies handled the situation appropriately.
“Remember that nobody got injured, none of our personnel and none of the protesters,” Apostolos said. “We brought in the helicopter as a way to even up the odds, to cause a distraction. When they were told they had an unlawful assembly, and they wanted to continue protesting and holding a demonstration, there was a clear intent to violate the law.”
Jason Ellwood, 22, a busboy and furniture-maker living in Leucadia, said the River Mouth melee was similar to a beach battle that occurred a mile south of River Mouth on July 4, 1986.
In that highly publicized incident, a dozen deputies came to break up a loud party. In the brawl that followed, two young brothers were arrested; their family retaliated with a lawsuit charging police brutality.
In the end, both the criminal charges and the civil suit were dropped.
“Most of the time the beach deputies are pretty cool; they just show up and tell you to quiet down and put out the fires,” Ellwood said. “But if they think you’re getting in their face, they begin hassling you. That’s what happened July 4 (1986) and again on Sunday.”
At the suggestion of Del Mar Councilwoman Gay Hugo, Tostado and his followers have agreed to a clean-up campaign before the Sept. 19 showdown, as a sign of good faith.
The city has erected new signs to reinforce the 10 p.m. curfew on fires. The political winds seem to be blowing briskly in favor of a crackdown.
“The call to rid Del Mar of its party-town image was sounded more than two years ago, and since then, the council has done little to tighten regulations or to effectively increase enforcement of existing rules,” the Del Mar Surfcomber said in an editorial backing a ban on fires and alcohol.
Meanwhile, the mood at the beach is decidedly downbeat.
“We’ve had a good thing going for a long time, but I guess we blew it,” said Eric Larson, 29, a pizza deliveryman from San Marcos. “I think the good times are just about to end at River Mouth.”