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Skateboard ban hits upon some rocky ground

In the corridors of power at City Hall, a lively internal debate has been raging for months about how to control teenagers on skateboards.

The result is a proposed ordinance that would ban skateboarding in downtown and place limits on people who use roller skates, in-line skates and "other similar devices."

Among the more controversial provisions is one that would provide for parents to be ticketed if their children defy the ordinance after one warning.

City commissioners called for the measure in March after numerous complaints about groups of skateboarding teens in downtown. But, as often happens in government, turning good intentions into laws that make sense in real life can give rise to second thoughts.

According to documents made public Thursday, some serious questions have arisen. Among them:

Is this the right message to be sending when, in a few months, a new stretch of the Pinellas Trail will be built through downtown after years of planning and delays? The trail is popular with all manner of skaters.

How can youths who use skateboards to get to school be accommodated?

To what extent should parents be held responsible for the misdemeanor offense of skateboarding?

Won't banning skateboarders downtown chase them to other areas, such as the beach?

Do the police really have time to enforce such an ordinance?

"The answer is yes," Assistant City Attorney Rob Surette wrote in response to the last question. "Any ordinance worth adopting is worth enforcing."

He added that there had been numerous complaints.

Surette said downtown is the only area mentioned in the ordinance because that is where the problem is occurring. If a problem develops elsewhere, he said, the city could erect "no skateboarding" signs there and enforce the ordinance.

Surette was responding to the city's Parks and Recreation Board, which raised many of the questions and opposes the ordinance.

The debate will continue Monday, when city commissioners will be asked to decide whether they still want the ordinance.

Groups of skateboarders make frequent use of the smooth, sloping veranda surrounding City Hall. They also skate on nearby church property, in bank parking lots and on downtown sidewalks.

Police report that they use Station Square Park on Cleveland Street as "their own personal skateboard playground," jumping off curbs and benches with "little regard for the pedestrians inside the park."

Officials say the skateboards are scratching and cracking pavement, benches and curbs. One memo this week reported $1,500 in skateboard damage to tiles and handrails at the new $14-million Harborview Center.

The ordinance would ban skateboards from streets, sidewalks and parking garages in an area bounded by Clearwater Harbor on the west, Missouri Avenue on the east, Drew Street on the north, and Court and Chestnut streets on the south. That area includes Coachman Park.

The measure also would ban people using in-line or roller skates from parking garages and lots, and from any areas with "no skating" signs. The ordinance would not ban these skaters from streets or sidewalks, as long as they yield to pedestrians and street traffic.

It would make it illegal for parents or guardians to permit children to commit any violations. The city would issue a written warning to parents after the first infraction. After that, parents could be cited.

The proposal goes beyond Florida law, which prohibits "any coaster, toy vehicle or similar device" from riding on "any roadway" except while crossing the street.