It’s a grind: Police crackdown sparks calls for retooled skateboard ordinance

Like a tropical island amid an ominous ocean, a skate shop can be a safe haven. People don't show up there merely to buy boards, shoes or other gear (though that's what keeps Asheville's two downtown skate shops afloat).

The hot spot: Eric Hunt outside Push Skate shop, which is situated in the middle of Asheville's no-skate zone. Photos by Jonathan Welch

Aficionados also gather to watch videos, share stories and just enjoy being surrounded by the trappings of their sport.

Lately, however, a new conversation is cropping up among skateboarders, as more and more find themselves nailed for violating the city's skateboard ordinance and brought before the recently established Nuisance Court.

"Most people I know have gotten tickets, the people who ride for the shop," says Eric Hunt, who runs the counter at Push Skate Shop on Patton Avenue. "Multiple tickets, actually."

Contrary to what the bumper stickers say, skateboarding is a crime in downtown Asheville — on sidewalks, on streets, on city-owned and private property. In fact, except for the Food Lion Skate Park, virtually every paved surface is off limits to skateboards. And as of last month, 28 tickets had been issued for skateboarding since the Asheville Police Department dedicated a new eight-member downtown patrol last August. By the end of January, 26 of those cases had been handled by the city's Nuisance Court, which also premiered last August.

That's a small number compared with the volume of public drunkenness, trespassing and panhandling cases that have come before the court during that same period. (Panhandling, public drunkenness and graffiti were the big three concerns cited by the Downtown Social Issues Task Force, which recommended establishing the Nuisance Court a couple of years ago.) But that is little consolation to skaters.

Until the APD created its special downtown unit, run-ins with the law were a possibility, but enforcement was spotty and unpredictable, says Hunt. No numbers are available for those offenses, according to the Police Department, because skaters were often charged not with skating but with associated crimes such as trespassing or destruction of property. Now, however, the tickets specify skateboarding on city streets or sidewalks or on city-owned property.

Community Resource Officer Jackie Stepp says the total number of skateboarding tickets issued has risen since last August. After an initial spike, however the numbers have declined month to month, according to Buncombe County Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher. But she admits that it's anyone's guess as to whether the recent drop is attributable to tickets or the onset winter. "The skateboard numbers went down each month, but the weather got colder each month," notes Dreher. "It was 12 degrees outside."

In Hunt's mind, however, there's no doubt about the linkage: "I haven't skated downtown since summer," he reports, "because I'm scared I'll get a ticket."

Full-court press

Skateboarders whose cases are heard in Nuisance Court typically wind up doing community service and rarely get a permanent mark on their record, notes Dreher.

"They get 15 hours. The agreement we have with them is that if they complete their hours in a timely way, then we will do a motion for appropriate release and strike their judgment," she explains. "Then it won't be on their record." The ride also includes $130 in court costs. So far, that community service has taken the form of litter patrols or working in the city's sign shop, according to those who have gone through the system.

But depending on what else occurs during the stop, the penalties may get stiffer. George Etheredge was stopped and ticketed by an officer on a bicycle on Patton Avenue, practically right in front of Push. A few weeks later, he and some visiting friends were skating in a downtown alley when the police showed up. With one ticket already under his belt, Etheredge made a run for it and wound up with an additional charge of resisting arrest — and 25 hours of community service.

On Thin Ice: Skateboarding on the street or sidewalk is illegal in downtown Asheville … even in the crosswalks. Tickets and trips to the city's Nuisance Court have been on the rise since last summer.

Hunt says he's heard plenty of stories like that, and most local skateboarders seem to get pretty serious when the topic comes up. Some don't want their names used, because they expect to interact with a police officer again at some point. Tales of tickets, confiscated boards (which Stepp confirms are sometimes kept until the court process is complete) and skaters being stopped on the sidewalk right outside the skate park abound. Meanwhile, says Hunt, the beefed-up enforcement has led some skaters to wonder whether the real motive might be generating revenue during fiscally challenging times.

That impression, notes Push co-owner Rob Sebrell, may have been reinforced by the fact that the city gave little warning before beginning to issue tickets last year, and no signs have been installed downtown.

"It's like they weren't interested in warning people as much as busting people," says Sebrill. Ticketed skaters typically pay only court costs.

Another theory is that the crackdown could be linked to the planned opening of the new Pack Square Park this spring, which will feature the kinds of steps and ledges that attract skaters like ants to a picnic.

"I know they are putting millions into that place," notes Hunt, adding, "Maybe they're trying to deter people from skating that new stuff."

The nonprofit Pack Square Conservancy is clearly aware of the threat skateboards pose to the pricey new park; last month, board Chair Guy Clerici called attention to the new, grooved stone benches in front of the Biltmore Building on Pack Square, which were specifically designed to discourage skate tricks.

But APD Chief Bill Hogan says the real reason for the increase in citations is simply the presence of eight new officers downtown.

"I can tell you that at my level, and talking with the captains and at the lieutenants' level, that we've had no conversation about ratcheting up our enforcement and targeting skateboarders," says Hogan. "It's more of having a greater presence downtown. They're more often on foot and can probably address a problem when they see it."

In addition, he maintains, the squad has made significant progress in addressing the concerns identified in a 2008 citizen survey that gave downtown low ratings in terms of how safe people felt there.

Back to the future?

Asheville's skateboard ordinance isn't new. It wasn't adopted during the sport's resurgence in the 1980s and '90s, nor even in its original '60s heyday. No, what eventually became Asheville's skateboard ordinance actually dates back at least to 1945, when a section of the city code prohibited "roller coasting or roller skating in any of the streets of the City of Asheville nor on any sidewalk in said city."

By the time the city re-adopted its code of ordinances in 1965, the language had evolved to prohibit "roller skates, coasters, etc." on all streets and sidewalks within a business district.

The word "skateboard" made its first appearance in 1993, when the city once again re-adopted its code of ordinances: "No person shall engage in roller coasting, skate boarding or roller skating on any sidewalk in a business district." Another section prohibits riding on city streets. That skateboarding made it onto paper at that point merely reflected the evolution of the wheeled conveyances in question — and the open-ended wording in the original ordinance — according to the city attorney's office.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that no recent City Council has discussed an ordinance either banning or approving skateboarding on the streets and sidewalks of Asheville.

The most significant community discussion of skateboarding took place in the late 1990s when the need for a skate park was being debated. Despite the ordinance, Asheville's downtown was taking its licks from skaters using curbs and railings as props for perfecting their tricks. So in 1998, city leaders, business owners and skaters joined forces to erect a temporary park atop the Asheville Civic Center parking deck, whose success led to the creation of the Food Lion Skate Park on Cherry Street two years later.

But the park's heavy use has prompted some local skaters to wonder whether one location is enough for an entire city.

"What if the kid doesn't live downtown?" asks Sebrell, adding that he'd like to see individual skating elements installed in existing city parks in areas where skateboarders wouldn't interfere with other park users. "If they just give us one bench, we'll use it," he says. "If they give us the space, we'll build it."

Hunt, meanwhile, stresses how much the face of skateboarding has changed since the mid-'90s, not to mention the mid-'40s. And that dramatic shift, he argues, points up the need to reconsider the sport's overall status — particularly in light of recent local nods to alternative transportation, such as painting bike lanes along some city streets.

"Most of my friends work full-time jobs and pay taxes, and we ride our skateboards for transportation," says Hunt. "There are as many people riding skateboards as there are riding bikes. Skateboarding has grown over the last 15 years, and that needs to be re-evaluated."

What's more, he points out, the local skating scene embraces everyone from preteens to middle-aged practitioners (Tony Hawk, perhaps the sport's premier ambassador, turns 42 this year).

Four wheels down?

"What other outlet for teenage boys do they have here?" asks Ellie Richard, whose son is a skater. "At least they're not sitting in front of the TV."

Hunt also feels there ought to be some other way for local law enforcement to interact with young skaters besides handing out tickets. "You kind of instill in these kids at a young age to be scared of cops," he says, adding, "I know my generation has that."

Skater Jacob Atkisson agrees. "These kids … don't have anything against anything. They just want to skate," he asserts. "You can have a skateboard in your hand and you're going to get looked at different."

"It feels like the skaters are the underdog here," Richard chimes in. "They don't have adequate representation. I don't know how they [and the city] can come to an agreement."

One possibility might be to look to Portland, Ore., for inspiration. In 2000 — the same year Asheville's skate park opened — the Pacific Northwest city designated certain portions of its downtown for transportation-only skateboarding — no tricks allowed. Portland also requires the use of helmets and reflectors and excludes streets considered too dangerous for skaters or pedestrians. One Asheville boarder called this the "four-wheels-down rule," and some in the local skating community believe it could become the basis for compromise in a retooled city ordinance.

"We want to try to do something to change [the law]," says Hunt. "As far as riding on the sidewalks or streets to get to school or work, that should be an exception. I feel like the majority of the people in the city would be open to it."

Skateboarders who flouted such a law by doing tricks would be subject to the trespassing and property-damage laws that are already on the books. "I understand business owners not wanting people to damage their property," says Hunt. "And it's well within that business's rights to call the police."

Judging by a preliminary survey of Asheville City Council members, there's been no discussion of revisiting the skateboard issue, but Council member Cecil Bothwell said, "I would definitely be in favor of permitting use of skateboards for transportation downtown."

And as Hunt sees it, "This needs to be a conversation. We need to take a day and get business owners to sign [a petition] and have something to take to City Council. I've dedicated my entire life to skateboarding; it's a job for me. And to not be able to do that is pretty frustrating."

Brian Postelle can be reached at bpostelle@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 153.

 

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29 thoughts on “It’s a grind: Police crackdown sparks calls for retooled skateboard ordinance

  1. bloomkid

    Asheville needs more skateparks in its public parks. Skateboarding is one of the biggest sports in the country and Asheville needs to show that they understand that by giving these kids (and adults like me) a place do our physical activity if they want it illegal on the streets.

    Here are some interesting facts in regards to its popularity. The number is from 2004, and the sport has grown more in those 6 years. If Asheville can have public parks with baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and basketball goals, why cant there be a skatepark in some of those parks also? The Food Lion skatepark is not conducive to the number of people who participate in the sport in this city (and surrounding areas)

    “Based on a 2004 sports participation study performed by SGMA International, there are approximately 11.6 million skateboarders in America. This figure is enough to make skateboarding the third most popular sport for American teenagers. Football currently ranks first, and basketball ranks second. The figures reported by the SGMA indicate that skateboarding is more popular than baseball, hockey, tennis and virtually every other traditional sport in the United States.”

  2. Carl Gunpowder

    “F— the police coming straight from the underground!”

  3. west asheville

    I don’t understand why they can’t go use the skate park. Public sidewalks are not intended for skateboards, bikes, or any other mode of transportation other than walking. If you want a place to skate, get organized and build something, but quit your whining. And no, you are not “entitled” to a skate park paid for by the city.

  4. mtndow

    “No person shall engage in roller coasting, skate boarding or roller skating on any sidewalk in a business district.” Another section prohibits riding on city streets.
    EQUAL ENFORCEMENT. Ticket all the small children trying to learn how to rollerskate. Ticket all the in-line skaters. SK8boarders need to pick up their boards when downtown. Be nice to law enforcement. SK8 Foodlion, Zero Gravity and Hendo. skateparks.
    Wear your helmets, pads and pick up the trash when you leave.
    Support Your Local Skate Shop

  5. tkp

    and the small town blues hit you tough like this type of news. cops are bored so they go for the easy, skaters run rampant in the streets living far too freely. put on a helmet get outta the street ,walk everywhere and use your feet. you can’t roll around on a piece of wood with wheels, thats illegal you should be killed! hell don’t even think of saving the earth, you should be in a car driving to and from work, be like everyone else and live like me, cause you see it’s so easy. abide by the laws and abide by the rules, if you don’t your just a fool. go to that skatepark we paid for, it’s not like a tennis/basketball/city soccer court, you gotta pay to get in, you gotta wear your protective gear and if not your living in sin, these streets weren’t built for your rackety boards, our city would much rather have the streets empty and oh such a bore. i’ve been to asheville it’s a beautiful place, but having a cop try to arrest you for rolling down the street… thats a fucking disgrace.

  6. Cheshire

    If they’re not doing tricks and are riding in a responsible manner, I think the “4 wheels down” concept would be great. I’ve never really been on a skateboard (I’m a 2-wheels guy, myself) but just about anything is more efficient and interesting for transportation than walking. Would you rather there be that many more cars downtown clogging up the parking issues?

    I’ve got a bad leg these days, anyway. If this became a viable option, I might be interested. You’ll know if/when it happens. I’ll be the guy boarding for transportation holding a cane. Hehe. That would beat the heck out of relying on my handicap placard since I can’t walk too far, and I could keep the weight off of my bad leg longer! Now that I think about it…yeah!! Let’s get skateboarding for transportation to be an option!

  7. Alan Ditmore

    Skateparks don’t help facilitate skateboarding as a means of carbon free transportation like bike riding. Skateboards need to be able to use the same lanes as bicycles, for the same reasons.

  8. mtndow

    Good point, Alan.
    It’s our city. Let’s change the rules. Any thoughts on who/how to approach about rescinding the ordinance? Cecil, Gordon?

  9. Bill Skates

    The thing that bothers me the most is that the police now come to the skate park to harass skaters. I’m not kidding either they actually wait for kids to come out of the park and write them tickets for skateboarding.

  10. Bill Skates

    The thing that bothers me the most is that the police now come to the skate park to harass skaters. I’m not kidding either they actually wait for kids to come out of the park and write them tickets for skateboarding.

  11. Cheshire

    I’m not sure about the same lanes part, Alan. Bicycle lanes, sure. However, bike lanes are sketchy at best, and College street is a prime example of why. Cars constantly treat it as parking and it runs next to parallel parking which makes getting doored a real threat. The other option for bicycles is sharing the road with cars…something I’m not sure about as an option for skateboards.

    I don’t know: what kind of speeds are skateboards capable of for travel? Come on, boarders: let’s hear it. Sidewalks or traffic lanes for boarding for transportation…which is better? I’d think sidewalks, but as I’m not a boarder I don’t feel qualified to make that assumption without insider input.

  12. sunny

    great comments gang.

    I longboard. It’s a much nicer option than a park board when it comes to actually commuting.

    The street is the place to be as far as I am concerned. Carving is a part of the ride. How you control speed. If there are no cars it’s best just to take up the whole road, rather than have a skinny sidewalk. When I was in Portland and Seattle this summer, I was amazed how many commuting longboarders there were. I wish more people would get into it here.

    I think a place to start with the political battle is to send an email to all the city council members, followed up with a phone call. It would help if someone would take on organizing a sensible campaign like the city chicken people did. I can help with the graphic design/web media side of it.

  13. ashevillian

    Isn’t it ironic that America holds its’ olympians in high regard and MANY of the snowboarders got their start on skateboards … more of the NIMBY attitude of Asheville … I guess the cops don’t have enough to do so they bully children with skateboards.

  14. mtndow

    No Whining Please. I emailed City Council last night about considering a review of the ordinance. Cecil has expressed his interest. Jan indicated that he’s pretty sure Council will consider it and Gordon emailed me about sending it up before the Public Safety Committee. We have been here plenty of times in the past. Lets see how this issue can be promoted. Alan, Sunny? Do we need a “SpaceBook” page or some other media for an electronic petition or support?

  15. sunny

    great job mtndow.
    there is a ‘Asheville NC Skateboarding’ facebook page already. though it might not be the spot to congregate online for this cause. I’m going to aim to get down to the skate shops this weekend and check in with them if something is already in the works. Rather than recreate the wheel. -Sunny

  16. rob

    i have emailed all of the city council members and mayor bellamy to let them know that we want this issue brought before city council. hopefully we can organize and change the law. i’m down to do everything i can to help make this happen.
    -rob
    PUSH skateshop

  17. Skateboard transportation needs to be encouraged, and the four wheels down compromise sounds reasonable. The firsthand stories I’ve heard from Bill Skates about the enforcement tactics sound extremely unreasonable.

    Rob, I’m with you.

    Tom

  18. Rob Close

    Yes, change this law, this is incredibly outdated.

    I really liked the suggestion about Portland’s laws…4 wheels down seems like a great compromise that helps all sides.

    And roller-skating is effectively illegal too?!? What?!? Yeah, this is way overboard.

  19. HKUSP

    I think the “Four Wheels Down” rule would be a good compromise. I hope, however, those of you taking it upon yourselves to attempt to change the ordinance also take it upon yourselves to educate the skating public if and when it is changed.

    I can see the change causing confusion among the skating crowd, and enforcement actually increasing due to ignorance of the new rules….i.e. the “bastardization” of the actual legal meaning of a four wheels down rule into “I can skate however I want, wherever I want to downtown”.

  20. pass the dutchy

    I support vehicular diversity. Its possible to have motorized and non-motorized vehicles sharing the same paved area without a shit-ton of stripes and laws. Just common sense and respect for your fellow human. But I don’t know if Americans can handle it considering the traffic circle at walmart pretty much pwns most drivers. But its worth a shot look at the link:
    http://www.pps.org/info/newsletter/From_Place_to_Place_Part_Two/Sidewalk

  21. Philip A.

    Where is the petition? I want to sign it. I will be moving to Asheville with my wife from TN next month. We will both be registering to vote immediately. We will both be professionals in the community (she is an MD). It’s disappointing that I will have less freedom to ride my skateboard or longboard in Asheville than in a small TN town.
    I do believe that if we earn the freedom to skate we will need to do our part to educate the community. Foot-breaking is the best way to stop a skateboard in a controlled manner and short distance. I don’t mind wearing a helmet. We also need to organize a political action group. I would love to do some volunteer work in the name of skateboarding. Anyone want to start a fundraiser ride, adopt a highway, or something similar? I would like to organize a ride to benefit the Fraternal Order of Police and support the families of fallen officers. This is how Harleys that can be heard a mile away stay legal. We could also have a “teach a cop how to skate day.” Skaters, you don’t have to “grow up” but it would be nice if you started to think of yourselves as citizens and VOTE!

  22. Scott

    Today I tried to longboard two blocks from my house in West Asheville to a friend’s house. I didn’t even make it a block before I was confronted by an extremely demeaning cop who tried to make me feel like a fool for even riding a board. He insisted that I ride down the uneven, cracked sidewalk, rather than the slow cruising down the right side of an empty residential street. Does this ordinance even apply to West Asheville? Am I not allowed to practice skating in the street in front of my home?! I don’t want to regret moving here..

  23. mucca

    scateboarding is the best thing for some ppl in there life like me its so stoopid that cops an what not dont want skaters like us around like what harm is it im 15 and cops and what not always trying to stop me and take my board like what th hel are skaters suppose to skate at ????!!!….

  24. nate

    Sidewalks aren’t much good for skating. Not very pleasant. Roads are much perferable in my opinion. On my longboard I can push at a pretty reasonable pace, I’d say like 10-15mph for a couple miles.

  25. logan

    this is just an easy way for the city to get money. they are basicly stealing our money

  26. mike fortney

    i grew up skating in asheville and we ran the whole downtown till 1996. after 5pm we had the place to ourselves. you could go up the crow’s nest on the jackson building and on the roofs of all kinds of other buildings. we would have like 30-plus people skating at vance for hours. it was like no one was watching except random gangsters and the occasional cop or homeless person. after 96 was when i moved away and downtown started to blow up with development. i barely recognize downtown now, it’s so busy at all times. it doesn’t look nearly as inviting to skate now since it’s so crowded with people all the time, so transportation looks like the only reason to skate there anymore…

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