ENCINITAS — Cara Kwon arrived at Moonlight Beach at 5 a.m. on Friday to lay claim to a fire pit and picnic table.
“I was a little bit scared,” Kwon said. “It was dark and security was a worry.”
Twelve hours later, she sat alone on the same picnic table she’d secured earlier. Kwon waited for guests to arrive, grocery bags by her side.
“My daughter wanted a bonfire for her 16th birthday,” Kwon said. “I heard it takes getting here real early.”
Friends took her place for a few hours. Nonetheless, Kwon spent most of the day watching beachgoers play in the sand.
Kwon’s story isn’t uncommon during summer months. In hopes of easing the early-morning hunt, the Encinitas Parks and Recreation is proposing a reservation system for three or four of its eight fire pits.
“At least four of the eight fire pits would remain first come first serve,” said Michael Stauffer, senior parks management analyst.
Under the plan, a reservation would nab a fire ring and picnic table from dawn to dusk. Doing so would cost $25 for residents and local nonprofits, $50 for Encinitas businesses, $75 for non-locals and $100 for companies located outside of Encinitas.
The Encinitas City Council is due to hear a report on the reservation proposal on Sept. 11 as part of a larger agenda item about fees for events at parks and beaches. Then, council is tentatively scheduled to vote on the plan Sept. 18 following a public hearing.
If approved by the councilmembers, it’s expected to take effect by spring of next year.
Stauffer said the plan came about in response to “such high demand” for the fire pits and picnic tables.
“People have to sit around all day to stake out a fire pit,” Stauffer said.
“We get calls all the time from people asking if they can reserve a fire pit,” he added. “We tell them that’s not possible.”
But the plan has its critics. As smoke and the smell of roasting hot dogs drifted in his direction, beachgoer Danny Galvan said a reservation system would result in fire rings going unused for hours at a time.
“If people reserve a pit and don’t show up until the late afternoon, the fire pits would just sit there,” Galvan said.
Also, he said that with fewer fire pits available on a first-come, first-serve basis, those who don’t want to pay would have to show up even earlier.
Galvan, who grew up in Encinitas and now lives in San Marcos, added that reservations “just aren’t right.”
“This is how we’ve always done it,” Galvan said.
Although it had been a long day of waiting around, Kwon said she could see both sides.
“There could be less of a wait for some, but some people might not be able to afford it,” Kwon said.
Lifeguard Capt. Larry Giles said that lifeguards often have to diffuse disputes over those competing for fire pits.
“It’s an issue every summer, with Fridays and Saturdays being the peak,” Giles said.
Typically, Giles said the arguments are nothing but a “verbal back and forth.” But there have been a few pushing matches in the past.
Most disagreements stem from people who wrongly believe they can set down wood on a pit, leave and claim the fire ring later, he noted.
“If you’re not occupying a fire pit, then it’s not yours, according to municipal code,” Giles said.
Giles said mediating a dispute generally means reading relevant parts of the municipal code or suggesting that those who disagree share the fire pit.
An informal sample of cities suggests that a reservation system for beachside amenities is uncharted territory for North County.
There’s no way to rent beachside facilities in Oceanside in advance, according to Jamie Boatright with the Oceanside Neighborhood Services Department.
Permits are required for large gatherings in Solana Beach, but that doesn’t guarantee any amenities, said Kirk Wenger, recreation manager for the city.
“Picnic areas can be reserved, but none are on the beach,” said Christine Ray, communications manager with Carlsbad.
A parks and recreation official from Del Mar didn’t return a call by press time.
Some details of the Encinitas plan, like how often fire rings can be rented and where to book them, have yet to be sorted out.