Laguna Beach may ban downhill skating

Hunter Schwirtz riding Summit Drive in Laguna Beach, early Jan. Casey Stearns

Lawmakers in Laguna Beach, Calif., will consider banning skateboarding on four of the city's steepest streets following complaints from residents and motorists who say skaters booming downhill at high speeds create safety and liability concerns.

Downhill skateboarding, also known as speedboarding, has been popular for decades in Laguna's canyon neighborhoods. But the sport in which skaters ride larger, faster boards and wheels, has been resurgent in recent years.

"The sport is blowing up right now," said Mark Golter, a Laguna Beach local who won the world downhill championship in 2002 and 2003 and competed at the 1998 X Games, when the sport was featured as an exhibition.

These days Golter, 41, acts as a mentor for many of the younger riders in Laguna Beach, several of whom are on the Madrid Skateboards http://madridskateboards.com/ junior team, including his son Skyler, 5, a pint-sized downhill prodigy.

Golter began skating during the early 1980s when Laguna was a locus for downhill. He said there are now several hundred practitioners in the area. "There's a lot more people doing it now," he said. "It's fast-growing and towns like Laguna are having to deal with it."

Last year a Laguna Beach resident complained to police that skaters whizzing down the street in front of his house were creating a traffic hazard. Police explained that the skaters weren't violating any laws. In California, the state's Vehicle Code treats skateboarders as pedestrians.

Soon, a group of residents banded together, calling themselves SNAG (Skateboarders Neighborhood Action Group) They passed out flyers and pressed the city council for an ordinance that would ban skateboarding on streets with a grade greater than 3 percent, similar to measures in Los Angeles County and nearby Newport Beach.

In October it appeared that the skaters and residents had reached an agreement that would avert an outright ban. But Laguna Beach city councilman Kelly Boyd said some of those affiliated with SNAG insisted on outlawing skating on streets with a grade greater than 5 percent, which would effectively include all streets used for speedboarding.

Boyd offered to mediate between the skater and resident groups. And on Saturday he met with the parents of two skaters, members of the city's parking and transportation committee, and two residents from SNAG. He said negotiations broke down when residents refused to budge on their insistence that the ban should affect any street with a grade greater than 5 percent.

Skateboarding is already banned in the city's downtown and boardwalk areas. And surfing is prohibited at most of the city's beaches.
"Too many rules and regulations," Boyd said. "We have to stop banning everything that young kids have to do. We can't just keep taking some of their freedoms away from them."

Still, Boyd believes speedboarding should be regulated. "The city council's two biggest concerns are safety and liability," he said. "The last thing we want is to have some kid get killed or get critically injured where they're brain-damaged or something."

Any proposed ordinance, which will not be voted on for at least a month, would treat skaters much like bicyclists. They would be required to obey stop signs, yield to traffic, control their speed, and avoid pedestrians. Skateboarding would be banned outright on parts of Alta Vista Way, Summit Drive, Temple Hills Drive, and Bluebird Canyon Drive, all of which offer some of the most desirable downhill terrain.

In exchange, Boyd said the city would look to alternative sites that are closed to traffic, including a 1.7-mile stretch of road leading to a water tower.

Golter said he favors creating a road dedicated to skateboarding, which he believes would be the first of its kind.