LAKE HAVASU CITY - The Rev. Dr. Bob Greene’s introduction to this city’s reputation as a party destination came when two young women walked into a fast food restaurant where he, his wife and their 13-year-old son were eating.
The women wore nothing but skimpy bikini bottoms and two stickers where the tops ordinarily would be.
“I was shocked. My son’s eyes were about to pop right out of his head,” said Greene, who moved from Atlanta in 2004 to lead the First Southern Baptist Church. “I guess the no shirt, no shoes thing didn’t apply.”
Lake Havasu City’s image as a party town began in the mid-1990s, when MTV filmed a spring break segment here, said Charlie Cassens, the city spokesman.
“It kind of got the reputation of being a free-for-all and a party, a place where you can pretty much go and cut loose and do whatever you want,” Cassens said. “Ten or 12 years ago Lake Havasu City was much smaller than it is today.”
Now with a population of more than 55,000, Lake Havasu City is trying to tone down the party. After considerable debate, the City Council passed an ordinance last year banning offensive behavior, including public intoxication, exposing oneself and vulgarity.
The ordinance carries a fine up to $2,500 and up to six months in prison.
With revelers expected to flock to the lake this month for spring break, many visitors will be dealing with the new rules for the first time.
“Since the ordinance came into effect towards the end of the boating season, we really haven’t had much of an opportunity to test it yet,” Cassens said. “Certainly as the temperature gets warmer we’ll be able to see how effective it can be.”
So far, fewer than a dozen people have been prosecuted under the ordinance, which went into effect last August, according to Lake Havasu City police.
While much of the revelry here takes place out on the lake, a good deal occurs in and around the Bridgewater Channel, a manmade waterway that runs past the beaches, shops, restaurants and resorts around London Bridge, the city’s main tourist attraction.
That’s where partying boaters come in contact with residents and tourists whose idea of fun is considerably tamer.
Casey Bos, who moved here after retiring from the California Highway Patrol, said he has given up going to the lake during spring break and on holiday weekends.
“People come here and let it all hang out,” Bos said. “What they do here they wouldn’t do in their own hometowns. This ordinance says we won’t tolerate this type of conduct anymore.”
Greene, the pastor, said many locals avoid the channel during busy periods.
“You don’t want to walk down there at those times because you would be exposing your children to almost nudity,” he said.
“In the channel, you have families, you have grandparents bringing their grandkids,” said Richie Sloma, a lieutenant with the Lake Havasu City Police Department. “What people tend to forget is that it is more of a family area.”
Lake Havasu City police pushed for the ordinance, saying they needed something in addition to the state’s disorderly conduct law, which doesn’t address public intoxication.
“This has been a problem and it’s been very controversial with the City Council and the citizens for the last couple of years,” Sloma said. “Fifty percent of the people say, ‘We’re a resort community so these things happen,’ the other 50 percent say, ‘No, we’re not going to cater.’”
Larry Reese, a boat owner and president of the Lake Havasu Marine Association, said concerns about partying are blown out of proportion.
“I’ve been told that we don’t know how to party,” Reese said. “I don’t think that the lake is any different than any other lake.”
In a place so dependent on tourism revenue, some businesses have been wary of the ordinance. The Chamber of Commerce opposed it, arguing that state laws already apply to disorderly conduct and that negative publicity could hamper tourism.
“We want our visitors to respect the town and our rules and to be safe,” said Lisa Krueger, president of the Lake Havasu Area Chamber of Commerce. “But we do not also want to be perceived as a community that has so many laws that it’s a deterrent for people coming here to relax.”
Greene, however, said the city only stands to gain from the ordinance because families will become more interested in visiting.
“We’re trying to curb the wildness,” Greene said. “We’re raising the quality and the standard in our community as a whole, so that instead of having college kids coming here every two or three weeks, we have families coming here year round.”