Downhill skateboarding doesn’t fly with Laguna Beach critics

For downhill skateboarders, the feeling of tucking your hands behind your back and bombing down one of Laguna Beach’s steep canyon roads is euphoric: the pressure of G-force as you bank turns, the wind on your face and the blur of asphalt rushing below.

But those who live along the curving hillside roads complain of heart-stopping confrontations and fear something serious could happen if steps aren’t taken to curtail the mostly teenage skateboarders who hitch rides up the hillside and scream down the road as fast as possible. Some estimate the skaters can travel in excess of 50 mph.

A group of residents on one of the city’s favored downhill spots, a winding, narrow road flanked by houses with ocean views, is asking the city to ban skateboarding on most hills and enact a 10 mph speed limit. It would effectively outlaw downhill skateboarding — also known as speedboarding — in one of the places the daredevil sport first emerged.

Several cities, including Malibu and Newport Beach, already have laws restricting the practice. But in Laguna — an independent-minded city that seems to tolerate extremes — the idea of government interference in a board sport is, for many, unthinkable.

In many ways, it’s a classic Southern California showdown: young kids on wheels, adults demanding they slow down.

Alan Bernstein, 62, pushed the issue onto the city’s agenda after one too many brushes with speedboarders outside his home on Bluebird Canyon Drive.

He and some 50 neighbors have written to the city about stories of harrowing accidents, broken bones and near misses they attribute to some 200 downhill skateboarders who zip down their narrow street each week.

“Coming home from work, after a long day of commuting, I have swerved to the side of the narrow road to avoid a terrible mishap,” wrote Carolyn Glosser, a neighbor.

A few months ago, Bernstein called police and was told that downhill skateboarders weren’t breaking any laws. They are pedestrians, according to state vehicle code, so they do not have to obey stop signs or speed limits.

So in May, he submitted a proposal to a city committee asking for a new law.

Skaters, however, say restrictions would squander law enforcement resources, intrude on civil liberties and rob the beach town of a cultural mainstay akin to surfing or scuba diving.

Like many teenage skaters, 15-year-old Dane Maison says he turned to high-speed, downhill skateboarding because it was the only option in a town with little flat land, no skate park and a skateboarding ban already in place on many sidewalks.

Several times a week, Maison hitches a ride up one of Laguna’s steepest hills and speeds back down on a birch longboard he built himself. He wears a full-face BMX-style helmet and homemade protective gloves. His thick, wide-set soft wheels grip the pavement, and, like most speedboarders, he has perfected a technique of sliding across the pavement that gives him the ability to stop quicker than a bicycle.

The real problem, he says, has been motorists not wanting to share the road.

“If the cars are going as fast as us, they’re probably speeding,” he says. “They don’t think we have as much control as we actually do. We’re not just standing on planks of wood bombing down hills.”

It wasn’t long after skateboarding emerged from the drained backyard swimming pools of Southern California that skaters took their boards to the hills in search of a new gravity-fueled rush.

Organized competitions were held as early as 1975 on a nearly 30-degree incline in Signal Hill. And devotees soon found ripe territory for their sport on the steep inclines and smooth pavement of roadways in the San Gabriel Mountains, Malibu and Laguna Beach.

In the last decade, equipment and techniques have leaped forward, and downhill skateboarding has grown into an extreme sport, with sponsored professionals clad in full bodysuits and aerodynamic helmets, closed-course competitions held around the world and a sanctioning body called the International Gravity Sports Assn.

As the fastest-growing offshoot of skateboarding, it’s no coincidence that it’s increasingly facing scrutiny in cities and towns blessed with hilly topography.

Last year Malibu outlawed skateboarding on some of its most twisted streets. Burbank bars skateboarding on all roadways, and in Newport Beach, it’s against the law to skateboard on 6% grade or more.

In Laguna Beach — a city of just 23,000 where “live and let live” is a local ethos — it was long held that such regulations were unnecessary.

And yet now critics say skateboarding has become such a safety risk that it demands intervention.

“We regulate skateboarding in the downtown area, we regulate surfing to make sure people aren’t hit by surfboards,” Bernstein said. “The same logic should apply to speedboarding.”

When word spread among skateboarders that a movement was afoot to penalize what they do with a $50 to $500 fine, a fury of opposition was unleashed.

A petition gathered more than 1,200 signatures. A Facebook group called Friends of Safe Skateboarding in Laguna posted police statistics showing that most traffic collisions are between cars and pedestrians or cyclists, not skateboarders. Dozens of residents not yet old enough to vote sent impassioned letters to the city.

“If you take away skateboarding, it’s like taking away our pride of Laguna,” ninth-grader Hunter Schwirtz wrote to the city. “I’m just a kid, but I have strong feelings on this subject.”

“Freedom of speech, freedom of skate,” another high schooler wrote.

At a hearing on the proposed ban at a middle-school gymnasium Thursday, the divide was apparent.

On one side of the bleachers sat the neatly dressed, mostly gray-haired skateboarding critics, who raised safety concerns, talked about insurance liability and called skateboarders “a menace to society.” On the other side, a contingent of skaters and their parents wearing “share the road” stickers waved skateboards above their heads, hissed, booed and asked the committee to protect their freedom to ride, calling it a decades-long cultural tradition.

Until the issue goes before the City Council, probably sometime this fall, it will remain a matter of disagreement, even among neighbors.

“As a surfer and someone that occasionally will ride my Carveboard down our streets, I cannot support you in this one,” Mark O’Brien wrote Bernstein, his neighbor. “The feeling of pure gravity is second to none.”