Ordinance banning ball games in parks goes too far

Clearwater is blessed with a world-class beach. It's a playground for locals as well as tourists who come here to have fun in the sun. But don't think you can play with a beach ball on that beach, or throw a Frisbee there, either — not if you want to be a law-abiding citizen. Throwing a ball and tossing a Frisbee are illegal activities on Clearwater Beach.

Fact is, throwing just about anything on Clearwater parkland is illegal, unless you do it on a designated "athletic field."

Yup, you heard me right. Lock 'em up, Sheriff Andy, they've been tossing balls in the park again.

The law against tossing can be found in Section 22.49 of the Clearwater code of ordinances, under the heading "Organized activities or potentially dangerous games."

It states: "No person or persons shall engage in rough or potentially dangerous activity such as football, baseball, softball, horseshoes, tennis, volleyball, badminton, or any other organized activity involving thrown or otherwise propelled objects such as balls, stones, arrows, javelins, shuttlecocks, Frisbees, model aircraft or roller skates on any public bathing beach or park property except in areas set aside for that purpose."

A second paragraph bans the same games when played under "informal" circumstances.

Okay, I understand why you wouldn't want people hurling javelins or shooting arrows. I could even agree with a rule against large groups playing an organized game anywhere except on a big field.

But classifying horseshoes and badminton as dangerous games?

Danger, Will Robinson! Incoming shuttlecock!

Making it illegal for Mommy and Daddy to play catch with their child in a park? Oh, come on!

City Council member George Cretekos was incredulous when he stumbled across the dangerous games ordinance. He questioned it at a City Council meeting.

"If I'm going to a park for a picnic, you're telling me that I can't take out a rubber ball to throw to my child?" he asked.

Uh, yeah, he was told.

Cretekos was so offended that he tried at three separate meetings to have that section of the code thrown out. He got nowhere with the four other council members. He even tried an alternative: requiring people who wanted to play ball to stay 50 feet from other park users. No dice.

"It boggles my mind," Cretekos said after his final effort failed.

For the city staff, this dangerous games provision is about safety, control and establishing which activities have priority in parks and on the beach. It became a city law several years ago because officials wanted to give police a legal basis to address conflicts between park users. Now, people can be charged with an ordinance violation.

I asked City Manager Bill Horne and Parks and Recreation director Kevin Dunbar how often such conflicts have arisen. Both said it happens occasionally.

When I asked for specifics, both mentioned that some young men started playing touch football regularly in Crest Lake Park. The men played in a section of the big park that does not get significant use, but it was near a sidewalk. The men used some foul language and sometimes flirted with women who walked by, Horne said.

Now, touch football, like all other types of ball playing, is illegal unless it is done on a designated athletic field. Just any patch of open grass, even a big one, doesn't qualify.

Clearwater has dozens of parks, but there are only 12 with athletic fields that don't require reservations. Get there first and you can toss a ball with your kid. The ordinance doesn't speak to the potential for conflicts among multiple users of athletic fields.

Laws like this drive me crazy — in fact, right now I can scarcely control the urge to commit an act of civil disobedience with a Nerf ball.

Not only do such laws attempt to legislate considerateness, they also paint with too broad a brush, impinging on the freedoms of individuals involved in harmless activities out of an excessive concern that some person or group might cause a problem.

City officials say that the law won't be enforced — wink, wink — except when they need it. A law created with selective enforcement in mind. That makes this ordinance even worse.

I checked to see how some other local cities have addressed this issue. How reasonable their ordinances sound in comparison! St. Petersburg just requires a park permit if a large group wants to play athletic games. Dunedin's code bans throwing "dangerous missiles" such as stones and darts, but doesn't say anything about balls. Oldsmar's park code just states, "No person shall engage in behavior unreasonably dangerous to others."

But I have bad news for you, Largo residents. Your code is almost identical to Clearwater's.

We have many things to fear in this world of ours. Can we all agree that one of them is NOT tossing balls in a park?

Please?

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com. To write a letter to the editor for publication, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Ordinance banning ball games in parks goes too far 11/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 4, 2008 1:01pm]

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