PTC to review street skateboarding

A group of Laguna Beach residents wants to put the brakes on skateboarding on Laguna's precipitous downhill streets.

The proposal will be on the Parking, Traffic and Transportation Committee's July 22 agenda. Previous attempts to restrict street skateboarding have been divisive. This latest attempt appears to be no different, with e-mails pouring into the committee and websites providing petitions.

"In my years on the PTC, this is by far the most controversial issue we have had before us," said Curt Bartsch, committee chair. "It's all over the place."

The committee, which usually meets in the Susi Q Community Room, is trying to arrange for more spacious accommodations in anticipation of the large crowd.

"We will accommodate them the best we can," Bartsch said.

Everyone will have an opportunity to speak, he said.

"I hope to present a petition signed by youngsters supporting skateboarding, which is now an international sport and we were the leaders here in Laguna," said Bruce Hopping, a fervent supporter of skateboarding and a resident of Laguna since 1950.

However, another longtime resident, Alan Bernstein, thinks the time has come to control and limit skateboarding.

Bernstein submitted a petition to the PTC, which prompted the formation of a sub-committee and the July 22 hearing. The petition asks the committee to recommend to the City Council a speed limit of 10 mph and permitted locations restricted to hills with a 3% grade or less.

Skateboarders have rallied to fight the proposed restrictions, using technology as their weapon.

Keep Skateboarding Legal in Laguna Beach, a Facebook group, is urging skaters to contact the PTC and to attend the hearing on July 22. Another group, Friends of Safe Skateboarding, has posted an online petition opposing Bernstein's proposals, claiming they would make skateboarding illegal on most Laguna Beach streets whether for transportation or recreation.

Bernstein said skateboarders have brought his plea for restrictions on themselves.

"I have lived on Morningside Drive for 27 years," Bernstein said. "People like to live in Laguna Beach because we are fairly tolerant — it's mostly live and let live."

Even when he was almost hit by some skateboarders being towed and was allegedly verbally abused for calling them on it, he let it pass.

However when his wife was intimidated by a group of teenagers who surrounded her car that she parked to write down the license plate of a vehicle illegally towing six skateboarders, Bernstein decided it was time to take action.

He called the police and hand-distributed 150 letters to his neighbors, urging them to call the department when they saw illegal skateboard activities.

Bernstein said he was contacted by 45 neighbors, 44 in support of his position.

"If you know anything about marketing, you know what big response that is," Bernstein said. .

The increased contacts with the police resulted in a major reduction in skateboarders, but lately the numbers have picked up again, Bernstein said,

His main concerns are the number of skateboarders, the lack of brakes on the boards and the lack of parental control over their children's dangerous activities.

"No one wants to hit a kid; no one wants to be hit by a kid; and no one wants their property damaged by a kid on a skateboard," Bernstein said.

His concerns are not new.

"In the 1980s, agile and adept skateboarders were scaring little old ladies on Forest Avenue," Hopping said.

And the city responded by ticketing and fining the skateboarders.

The parents of nationally ranked skateboarder Jesse Roach were ordered to remove practice equipment from their backyard and his father's outrage helped fuel a series of heated Recreation Department meetings, said Hopping

Hopping was among the adults and youngsters who clamored against police actions, pleading with the department to legitimize their sport.

Cars sported bumper stickers proclaiming "Skateboarding is not a crime." Parents urged the city to stop making criminals of kids.

The state vehicle code permits local governments to regulate skateboarding in the streets rights-of-way, Public Works Director Steve May said.

City ordinances prohibit skateboarding in the central business district — Aster to Legion Street and Coast Highway to the Irvine Bowl; highway sidewalks; Glenneyre Street sidewalks from Forest Avenue to Calliope Street; Cliff Drive sidewalks from the highway to Beverly Drive, Main Beach Boardwalk, city parks and pretty much anywhere else the council might designate.

Not enough, in Bernstein's opinion.

"Police need a tool for enforcement," Bernstein said.

Enforcement of the proposed restrictions would be difficult and would require a map of the city with street grades listed, May said.

"Is this street a 3.2% grade; is that one a 3.9%," he said. "If it comes to an ordinance, I will recommend defining the streets by name rather than by percentage of the grade."

Further, skateboarding goes back decades in Laguna Beach, where twisty hillside streets beckon daredevils, as firmly entrenched in the Laguna psyche as volleyball or surfing

Former police Lt. Jim White talked at the height of the '80s debate about snitching his sister's skates when he was in his youth and attaching them to a piece of board and zipping down Park Avenue.

More homes have been built on the hillsides since White's childhood, with more cars traversing the streets.

And even more today.

"We have 'densified' considerably," said Vic Opincar, a member of the PTC subcommittee that has been meeting with proponents and opponents of stricter rules for skateboarders.

"And there are really three categories of skateboarding: transportation, tricks and longboarding — so you have to be sure which group you are talking about.

"Longboarding is all about speed and it's new and current."

Downhill skateboarding is an adrenaline rush, but has inherent dangers, even avid skateboarders admit.

"I have often witnessed the young downhillers speed down Park Ave," said 47-year-old, self-styled 'skateboard mom,' Barb Odanaka. "Part of me thrills to see them fly down the hill; the other part dreads having to call 911 for them someday. It's a tug-of-war between my 'mom' and 'skateboarder' instincts."

Police Lt. Jason Kravatz verified that police responded to 368 calls related to skateboarding between January 2008 and June 2010. He said that skateboarding was involved in eight reported accidents, one in which the skateboarder was seriously injured.

"We should have a culture of safety," Bernstein said. "The first order of business for any government is safety."

Recommendations by the PTC will be considered by the City Council, which has the final local authority on issues of safety and community welfare, as well as quality of life.

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