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Graffiti at skateboard park

Jenifer Ragland

The classic clash between skateboarders and the “establishment” has reared its ugly head once again.

Park patrol officers are cracking down on a city ordinance requiring users of the Bijou Community Skateboard Park to wear full safety gear, and at least one skater appears to have retaliated by vandalizing the park.

Steve Weiss, South Lake Tahoe parks superintendent, said he found the facility covered with anti-police graffiti Wednesday morning. City crews removed the spray paint by early afternoon.

Although police are still investigating the situation and have not yet identified any leads, Weiss said the nature of the graffiti indicates it was done by a user of the park.

“I can’t see a non-skater doing this last night,” he said. “It could have been a reaction to the patrol service trying to enforce the ordinance by saying ‘wear it or leave.'”

The Parks and Recreation Department contracts with a security company on a seasonal basis to patrol all city recreation areas. The officers have citation authority, and, according to Weiss, will start using it if skaters do not comply with the ordinance.

But Weiss said he believes the graffiti was an isolated incident, and that the vast majority of the skateboarders who use the park daily would never dream of vandalizing it.

The problem, according to local skater Shon Baughman, is that the city’s law – forcing users to wear helmets, knee pads and elbow pads or face a $100 fine – is too strict for the nature of the skateboard facility.

“This is a low-impact skate park, so there really is no need for knee pads,” he said. “If you crash, you don’t go to your knees – you run it out or land on your hands or elbows.”

Baughman, one of the park’s originators, recently signed a contract with the city as the park concessionaire – a job that includes monitoring the skateboarders and informing them of the ordinance.

Due to Baughman’s presence at the park, most users have complied with the helmet rule, but many of them are still reluctant to wear knee pads, saying the equipment is too restrictive for street-style skating.

For that reason, he said his job is becoming increasingly difficult. His insurance won’t allow him to sell or rent safety equipment, and when he tried to give out helmets he was told he could only do that if he also gave out pads, which is financially impossible for him, he said.

Skateboarders are simply not wearing all of the equipment, so when the patrol officer comes by, he takes the skaters – Baughman’s customers – with him.

“This park is the most-used thing the city has ever done,” he said. “If they want everyone to wear full gear, the skaters will find somewhere else and the park will be dead.”

Rather than see that happen, Baughman is asking for a compromise – actively enforce helmets, but lighten up on enforcing the pads.

He has given Weiss and other city officials a copy of an educational video in an attempt to show the skateboarders’ perspective on the issues, and is hoping the City Council will consider working out a deal.

Baughman pointed out that many other California cities have skateboard parks where use of pads is a personal choice, and the agreement is working in avoiding these types of conflicts.

But because of existing state laws and the city’s overwhelming fear of being sued, chances of a compromise appear to be be slim.

“We could have liability suits, which could bury that skateboard park, and that’s the last thing any of us want,” Weiss said. “We want to provide an alternative source of recreation for the community, but unfortunately society carries rules that we as a part of the community have to deal with.”

Baughman said he has never heard of a claim being filed against any skateboard park, and is especially confident that would not happen here.

“Skaters aren’t going to sue the city, because when they heal they won’t have a place to come back to,” he said.

However, there is a perception by the general public and insurance carriers in particular that skateboard parks are lawsuits waiting to happen.

“Skateboarders are not a litigious class of people – they know it’s a risk and they’re gonna take it anyway,” said Dan Chick, legislative assistant for Assemblyman Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside, who authored a bill that could help resolve some of these problems. “But cities are saying ‘Oh my God, look what these kids are doing on our property,’ and that perception is what is causing them to ban skateboarding.”

AB 1296 passed in the Assembly this week and is making its way through the Senate. If it becomes law, it would reduce public agencies’ risk of liability for “hazardous sports,” skateboarding included.

“If it’s a public park and signs are duly posted that it is a hazardous activity, there would be some level of protection from being sued,” Chick said.

Weiss said that kind of protection could possibly be a way for the city to loosen the rules, but right now he is obligated to enforce the ordinance.

“If there are some ways to protect the city … maybe the full padding will not be necessary,” he said.

Meanwhile, city staff and police are urging park users to realize that retaliation is not the answer and to protect their facility by not allowing destruction of the property to take place.

“We want to get the word out that if this continues to happen, we will not tolerate it,” Weiss said. “The entire community should not tolerate it because the entire community has invested in building that facility.”

Baughman agreed.

“I think they’re going about it all wrong – the city and the skaters,” he said. “There has to be some way we can meet halfway.”


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