Charleston considering skateboard ban

College of Charleston freshman Michael Wehking rides his skateboard down Sumter Street as he heads to work Thursday morning. Wehking says that it would take him at least 15 minutes more to get to class or work if he had to walk instead of riding his skateboard. (Brad Nettles/ 4/26/12

With gas prices going through the roof, College of Charleston student Michael Wehking figured the best way to get around was a skateboard. He can get to class and his job at a sandwich deli downtown, both with minimal effort.

But if some Charleston City Council members get their way, skateboarding could soon be strictly banned in most all areas of the peninsula.

“That’s insane,” Wehking said after hearing of the idea. “Boarding” is the primary travel means for all sorts of people, he added, who could end up being stranded if forced to hang up their wheels.

City Councilman Mike Seekings, who represents several neighborhoods around the college, said he’s seen too many instances of skateboarders racing through stop signs, speeding on sidewalks and going against traffic to not take action. That’s why he’s backing a new “Skateboard Restricted Zone,” which would greatly expand the current no-wheels ban, including all around the College of Charleston.

“I’m not anti-skateboard,” Seekings said this week. But he added the current situation is a “formula for disaster,” as speeders zip around streets and sidewalks filled with tourists, shoppers and older residents, often after dark.

The proposed ban area would cover a roughly 20-block zone from Line Street in the north to Broad Street in the south.

The proposed map creates a much better defined ban area than the current, hole-filled no-skateboarding zone that has been in effect. Critics say the older version is unwieldy and difficult for police to enforce because it is so complicated. Under that version, skateboarders may not travel on streets posted at more than 25 mph. They may ride on streets posted at 25 mph or less — except for downtown areas in a school overlay zone or with commercial zoning. A special city zoning map is needed to understand where those areas are.

The new map essentially would create one compact area, outlawing skateboarding throughout Harleston Village, Radcliffborough, Ansonborough and Mazyck-Wraggborough, as well.

During a recent meeting where the ban was discussed, some members of council said an enforcement zone is worth looking at, with some describing rude and inconsiderate run-ins with skateboarders.

“You speak with them, you get the ‘finger,’?” Councilman Robert Mitchell said. The fine for anyone ticketed for illegal skateboarding runs to $113.

Not all members of council, though, are backing the idea.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said councilman Dean C. Riegel, who said skateboard enforcement should not be a priority for city police.

“Are we asking for SWAT teams to swoop down on 2- and 3-year-olds for riding their Hot Wheels as well?” he asked.

Riegel was referring to the wording in how the suggested skateboard ban ordinance is written. The new proposal is grouped under a heading meant to clarify where “roller skates, in-line skates, skateboards, toy scooters, coasters and motorized toy vehicles are prohibited.” Under the strictest interpretation, the current skateboard ban zone covers all these wheels as well.

Police Chief Greg Mullen said if council were to adopt a no-skateboard zone, it would help out his officers in having a better idea of where to target their enforcement. But he added he would also like to see a meeting of the skateboarding community and other local constituencies where both sides of the issue can be aired.

“There has to be an open dialogue on both sides,” he said, blaming the most visible problems on a small group of boarders, not the whole.

News that skateboarding could be outlawed didn’t sit well with Wehking, 19, who said it appears discriminatory against young people and those without a lot of money. He also counted more than 20 friends who likewise depend on skateboards to get around.

He listed some things about skateboarding that he considers advantages: They are cheap alternatives, don’t pollute, don’t take up parking spaces and don’t get tied up to light poles or parking meters, like bicycles.

“I can take it to the library with me,” he said. “They don’t say anything.”

Seekings said the restricted zone would be just one step in what he’d like to see happen with skateboarding and other alternative modes of transportation. Down the road, as Charleston becomes more bike friendly, he’d like to see an easing of the no-skateboard zone and more emphasis on education about what boarding etiquette is.

City Council will take up the ban map issue again in the coming weeks and plans to hold a public hearing about it. No date has been set.

If the ban is imposed, Wehking said, City Council needs to realize the hardship they’d be creating.

“I just don’t want to be stuck walking around,” he said.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.