When it comes to youth activities such as motocross or skateboarding, local governments tend to be behind the times. It took a while before governments accepted skateboarding as the popular activity it is rather than the bane of public property enforcers of public primness once made out to be. Rather than ban it, counties and cities now routinely add skateboard rinks to their parks. Palm Coast has a small one at Ralph Carter Park. The county and Flagler Beach have a larger one at Wadsworrth Park.
As always, it’s the youths using the parks who experiment and innovate, adapting the rinks to new purposes: bikes and non-motorized scooters have been part of the mix at skateboarding rinks for years, even though local ordinances usually ban their uses. That’s the case at Wadsworth Park, off of State Road 100, at the western end of the Flagler Beach bridge.
Now, Flagler Beach and the Flagler County Commission are trying to catch up to youths’ reality by matching their laws with what’s actually going on in public parks, rather than imposing laws that might alienate the young from the very parks created for their enjoyment.
The Flagler Beach City Commission on Thursday will take up an ordinance that revises the rules at Wadsworth Park, opening up the rink to scooters and bicycles but keeping in place the not-always-enforced requirement that all users wear helmets. The proposal is dividing officials and parents, some of whom like the broader allowance, some of whom consider it an invitation to accidents and lawsuits. The Flagler County Commission got in on the discussion earlier this week because the park belongs to the county, though it’s been run and policed by Flagler Beach for 10 years. How the two governments finally settle on the park’s rules may determine how permissive (or not) usage rules will be in future park expansions.
The county built Wadsworth Park around the same time that it built the Youth Center the school board runs on the campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School, at a time when county and city residents clamored for more activities for young people. It’s been successful, particularly among teens who don’t surf. About 75 percent of the park’s users are from Palm Coast, according to Tom Gillen, the Flagler Beach parks and recreations director. The popularity of skateboarding and similar sports has increased with the advent of the X Games.
“I know from our point of view,” Gillen said, describing how youths self-govern and respect the informal hierarchy of the rink. “I haven’t seen any additional injuries of a skateboarder and bicyclist coming together, no more so than two skateboarders or two bicyclists, two people on scooters, whatever.”
“I disagree with that,” Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, an avid biker, said. “I can’t see the two in harmony. Those bikes go up and down those ramps a lot quicker than those skateboarders, and you’ve got some new skateboarders out there. I just don’t think it’s a good mix.” The county would like to build a bigger facility. But it doesn’t have the means. It would cost $300,000 to $500,000 to expand the facility. The room to expand is there, says Craig Coffey, the county administrator. The money is not.
“We’ve got an outdated park and yet we’re trying to outfit it with all the various ways of navigating it,” Ericksen continued, “and that’s a particular problem. I certainly think that in the long term it would be best to have a bigger park there with more up to date ramps and challenges for these youngsters.”
The county got an email complaining about the mixture, but that mixed use has been going on for years. Capt. Matt Doughney, the Flagler Beach police chief, reports that the parent of an autistic boy called the city to say that the boy could not ride a skateboard because of his lack of balance, but he was riding a razor kick-scooter, which has a handle. “The young man had a helmet on, but was asked to leave the park because the park doesn’t allow for kick scooters,” Doughney said. “So here’s a young man who can’t ride a general skateboard, had the safety equipment that’s required to skate in the park, but he had to leave.” The new rules would enable the boy to ride in the rink.
“I contend,” Commissioner Barbara Revels said, “that even though you don’t get rid of all the rules just because you don’t think anybody will follow them, but in that age bracket, passing a rule is just encouragement to break the rules, and I do think that they do self-regulate.”
Whether the county and the city have rules in place or not is irrelevant if neither will enforce them. In the past, enforcement has been spotty at best. More recently, with the arrival of Flagler Beach Chief Matt Doughney, enforcement has been stepped up, but short of having a permanent policing presence at the park, it’s still difficult to enforce so much as helmet rules. The Flagler Beach Rotary donated 500 helmets that Doughney’s department now hands out to those who need them, to avoid issuing $50 citations. Thbe citations are still an option, with the revenue diverted to buying more safety equipment.
The idea, Doughney said, is to balance youths’ priorities with safety.
“If we give them a place to play, where they can utilize equipment that that’s what it’s designed for, fantastic,” Doughney said. “And I understand the challenges financially. But if we don’t give them a place to play, are they going to play at the Publix parking lot? Are they going to play at the courthouse or on the boardwalk on material that’s not designed for that? And when it came to the enforcement part of it, and just looking at when I first started, the kick scooters, the bicycles, they’re already there. From an enforcement point, I had to tell everybody to leave except for the skateboarders that had helmets, so in the future if we can get the park larger where we can include them, then the one thing we need to focus on again is safety. I want you to be there, I want you to use the park, if you don’t have a helmet. I’ll give you one.” He added, “I’m not worried about what you’re riding. I’m worried about are you riding safe, and are you wearing a helmet.”
Brian and Rachael Kopec addressed the commission to oppose the proposed allowance of bicyclists. “I’m very saddened to see the increased opportunity for an unsafe situation\,” Brian Kopec said. “And I’m going to step out a little bit and say that probably the majority of you sitting here are probably out of touch with really what’s going on there, from what I’ve heard. Some of you mentioned being there two years ago, others didn’t say they’ve been there recently at all.”
The county commission took no decision, and appeared divided on the issue, preferring to let the Flagler Beach City Commission take the lead on the new rules—and contend with the public reaction, should there be any. The city commission meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Flagler Beach City Hall.