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).
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."
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.
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 email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 153.