Laguna to enact skate ordinance

Mark Golter riding one of Laguna's city-owned roads under consideration as an alternative site for downhill skating. Casey Stearns

A polarizing debate over downhill skateboarding in Laguna Beach, Calif., was finally settled Tuesday -- at least for now.

Lawmakers struck a compromise between the ranks of skaters who boom downhill at high speeds and a group of residents who wanted to ban downhill skateboarding on any street with a grade greater than five percent -- essentially the most desirable terrain in Laguna, a seaside community with steep roads throughout its canyon neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, the city council passed an ordinance that outlaws skating on eight streets; sets a speed limit at 25 miles per hour; and requires skaters to yield to oncoming traffic and obey stop signs. Also, those under 18 will be required to wear a helmet, and skateboarding will be outlawed from sundown until one hour after sunrise. Those who break the law will be subject to fines.

Despite the restrictions, skaters consider the law a victory.

"Some are upset with losing any hills," said Mark Golter, a Laguna Beach resident who won the world downhill skateboarding championship in 2002 and 2003 and competed at the 1998 X Games, when the sport was featured as an exhibition. "Realistically we're lucky we didn't lose all our hills."

Downhill skateboarding, also known as speedboarding, has been popular for decades in Laguna. But the sport -- in which skaters ride larger, faster boards and wheels -- is resurgent lately. Golter, 41, began skating during the early 1980s. He said there are now several hundred practitioners in the area, prompting residents to complain about them creating traffic hazards.

Last year, a resident phoned police about skaters whizzing down the street in front of his house. 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 three percent, similar to measures in Los Angeles County and nearby Newport Beach.

Skateboarding is already banned in the city's downtown and boardwalk areas. And surfing is prohibited at most of the city's beaches.

For months debate in the community over downhill skateboarding played out at city council meetings and in letters to the editor published in the local paper.

"Laguna's lifestyle has always been pretty open," said councilman Kelly Boyd, who acted as a mediator between members of SNAG and the skaters. "I just didn't want to ban another thing. We don't need to keep banning and taking another thing away from the kids."

At a city council meeting two weeks ago, approximately 50 people urged lawmakers not to ban downhill skating outright. They included current world champion Kevin Reimer who drove down from his home in Canada to speak.

The victory for skaters could be temporary, however. The law governing downhill skating will be up for review after six months. "Now it's on us," Golter said. "We've got to regulate each other and keep it safe. We have to change some of the behavior of these young groms in Laguna."

Boyd said the skaters are on notice. "You got the break you wanted, so don't blow it," he said.

In the meantime, Boyd, Golter, and others have explored alternative sites for speedboarders, including some city-owned access roads that are closed to regular vehicular traffic. "I'm just hoping the kids do what's right," Boyd said, "and six months from now we can say keep doing what you're doing."