On the road again, skateboarders face moving violations
Portland police are ticketing skateboarders, like bicyclists, for violating traffic laws.
By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer May 19, 2008
Portland police have started ticketing skateboarders who violate traffic laws in the Old Port and Arts District after business owners complained that a recent ordinance change turned the downtown area into a dangerous playground.
The controversy calls into question an attempt by skateboarding advocates and some city officials to recognize skateboards as a legitimate, pollution-free form of transportation.
Business owners say the conflict cropped up last summer, especially on Exchange Street, after the City Council revoked an old ordinance that prohibited skateboarding on city streets. The council acted to clarify a newer ordinance that says skateboarders, like bicyclists, can ride on city streets as long as they follow traffic laws.
And while some say the problem started when the city removed its skate park on Marginal Way last spring, it's unclear whether a new skate park planned at Dougherty Field will lure skateboarders from their favorite downtown streets.
The council's public safety committee directed police to step up traffic enforcement on skateboarders last week. The three-member panel took action after it reviewed a business group's proposal to ban skateboarders from the area bounded by Congress, Franklin, High and Commercial streets.
"We weren't comfortable with an outright ban," said Councilor David Marshall, committee chairman. "We found that the police had never attempted to enforce traffic laws on skateboarders."
The committee is considering a ban on bicycle and skate tricks on city streets and sidewalks. It's also investigating whether the city's anti-cruising ordinance, which prohibits driving by a posted location more than twice every two hours – largely for the purpose of picking up sexual partners – may be applied to skateboarders who ride repeatedly on the same street.
Last summer, in addition to revoking a contradictory ordinance, the council banned skateboarding on downtown sidewalks.
Still, confusion continued. Skateboarding laws and lack of police enforcement led to an overall spike in skateboarding downtown, said Janis Beitzer, executive director of Portland's Downtown District, the group that sought the ban.
"That's when we saw the influx," Beitzer said. "They've converted Exchange Street into a playground. It's a public policy that has not worked and has unintended consequences."
Skateboarders say they have as much right to ride the streets of Maine's largest city as any car, motorcycle or bicycle. They say a total skateboarding ban is unnecessary and believe that most skateboarders will obey traffic laws if police enforce them.
"We don't need to take that fascist route," said Dylan Verner, 26, a skateboarding advocate who works at Sunny Breeze Boardsports on Marginal Way. "It's all our territory, and we need to protect the interests of everyone."
The center of the conflict is a short, steep stretch of Exchange Street, between Middle and Fore streets, that's lined with trendy shops and restaurants. It's in the heart of the Old Port, near Post Office and Tommy's parks, where teenagers and twentysomethings come to hang out and ride.
"Exchange Street is a stage for them," Verner said. "Some of them are incredibly talented athletes."
Most use wider, longer skateboards known as longboards, which are designed for racing and transportation. Shortboards are more commonly used in skate parks. The riders start at the top of the hill, at Exchange and Middle streets, and streak down the single-lane, one-way street, sometimes dodging vehicles and pedestrians along the way.
Some even blow by the stop sign at Fore Street.
Some skateboarders engage in "sliding." They crouch down and press gloved hands on the pavement to control their movements. The fingertips and palms of the gloves are padded with disks they cut from plastic cutting boards.
For some, like David Ericson, 25, skateboarding is the primary way they get around.
"I have a driver's license. I have a car. I prefer my longboard. I've gone as far away as Falmouth on it," he said.
Karl Geib, a bicycle patrol officer, gave out a few tickets to skateboarders in the Old Port on Thursday afternoon. Sol Melendy, 16, got one for pushing his skateboard up Exchange Street, against traffic.
Melendy is scheduled for a district court hearing on June 24 unless he pays a $25 waiver fee within 10 days at City Hall. If he contests the civil citation, he could be fined a minimum $50, plus court fees.
"They're picking on skateboarders," Melendy said. "How often do you see a cop giving a ticket for a bike going down a street the wrong way?"
Eli Cayer, a member of city's skate park planning committee, said skateboarding in the Old Port and Arts District may diminish when a $250,000 park opens on St. James Street, off outer Congress Street, near Interstate 295.
Construction could start as early as next spring, Cayer said. The city recently received a $50,000 matching grant through the Ollie Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, and several fundraisers are planned this summer.
Geib and others familiar with the Old Port skating scene aren't so sure that having a skate park will make a difference downtown.
"It's about having an audience," Geib said. "This is the cool place to be."
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: