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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Later, Skater: Jeffrey Edelheit of the Middle Way and Flynn Street homeowner Gail Hamilton don't see eye to eye on the West County Skatepark issue.

Skating on Thin Ice

The West County Skatepark has been approved, but will local residents stomach the intrusion?

By Sara Bir

It's a quintessential West County idea: a lush green Eden for young and old, half skatepark, half permaculture site. Lectures on using worm castings as fertilizer would take place only yards away from 14-year-olds doing nose grinds. Laughter of the formerly disenfranchised youth would ring out alongside that of master gardeners.

The tenacity of the players involved in the West County Skatepark and Community Garden has opened a door for their vision to become a reality. And on May 27, when the Sebastopol Planning Commission unanimously approved a use permit for the skatepark's proposed site on Laguna Vista Way, that dream got the big boost it's been needing for years.

But the residents of a tiny neighborhood a stone's throw away from the proposed site are not so thrilled. On the surface, it's the same old story--"We don't want no skatepark here"--that knocked down the many previous attempts to establish a West County skatepark. In fact, it's pretty much a given that no matter where you try to build a skatepark, segments of the community will object.

People need gardens, skaters need to skate, and youth need to be included in the community. So how was it that, in clearing the way for such a place, nine households were made to feel that they were totally excluded from the community? Permaculture or not, the construction of the skatepark and community garden will alter their lives for as long as they continue to live on Flynn Street.

This is a story of winning and losing and how it does not always boil down to good vs. evil. Because skateparks are not bad--but neither are quirky little neighborhoods.

The West County Skatepark Organization's roots reach back to the mid-'80s. Youths then involved with initial efforts to get a skatepark in Sebastopol are now adults with their own kids who skate, and their main hope is a weedy lot close to downtown that houses the temporary site of the Sebastopol Community Garden.

The grass roots of this project run deep, and the intersecting groups of people involved in its planning--besides the West County Skatepark Organization, there's the Middle Way, Greenacre Group Homes, and the city of Sebastopol itself--knock around the terms "community" and "integration" with great enthusiasm. "The potential is there, and we want to see it through," says Jeffrey Edelheit, director of the Middle Way, a Sebastopol organization that provides vocational training for adults with challenges.

As an offshoot, the Middle Way started a program called the RITES Project (Return Intentions Toward Ecological Sustainability), whose 40-odd volunteers work on a variety of ecology projects--one of them being the skatepark and community garden site.

Edelheit notes, "The goal was to find a permanent place for the garden and an interactive park for the city, because there is nothing like this. We're actually going to have gardens where people can grow their own vegetables [and] native plants . . . a place where people will be demonstrating biointensive farming techniques for urban dwellers."

That's the goal. The current reality is a little grittier. The Laguna Park Way site near Morris Street has housed the informal community garden for about a year. It's a green spot, though not instantly recognizable as a garden per se; weeds run rampant, and chaotic little plots of cultivation are scattered throughout the property. Sprouts peek through untended mounds of mulch and compost. There's a gazebo, wildflowers, planters--it's got the potential to be a sliver of land teeming with life, though now, in the battle between tamed vegetation and vacant lot, vacant lot is winning.

The hum from the fans at the adjacent Ryne Design Cabinet Shop creates a constant whirring drone, but the popping of gunshots at the Sebastopol Rifle and Pistol Club on the opposite side breaks through the drone every now and then. It's not a quiet place. With a skatepark in between, it wouldn't get any quieter--but according to the proponents of the skatepark, it wouldn't get any louder, either.

The property, zoned for light industrial use, was owned by Ken Martin. When the nonprofit West County Skatepark Organization contacted Martin and asked if he'd be interested in a skatepark and garden, he said yes. Currently the land is in escrow on its way to becoming city property.

Bill Kohl got involved with the West County Skatepark Organization about six years ago. "The initial effort dated back to the mid-'80s," he says. "Mostly we had kids ages 10 to 15. They learned after about a two-year effort that they didn't really have any political muscle, they didn't have a financial backer, and we had no site. They went to the city council meetings, but basically got nowhere."

David Pippé was one of the kids involved in that very first attempt to get a skatepark in the West County. That was 15 years ago, when he was 13. Now he's a counselor for troubled youths and sits on the board of the West County Skatepark Organization as technical director. "I used to have to skateboard two miles into town, and once I got here, you'd just get kicked out of everywhere," he recalls. "The only real opportunity was when the Santa Rosa park opened."

Pippé sees today's kids much as he once saw himself--with nowhere to go. "A lot of these kids don't have very much to do and just wind up in parking lots and in the town square and other places. It's a problem for residents, because they don't like to see kids--you always hear the story of someone crashing into an old lady. So [a skatepark] prevents all that, and we have a little cultural epicenter for the kids."

According to the Skatepark Association of the United States of America, skateparks are the first recreational choice among teenagers when polled by parks and recreation departments. "In this age bracket, skateboarding is the third most popular sport in the nation," says Pippé. "When I was a kid, we had our bicycles. It's a mode of transportation in addition to a sport, and even as a mode of transportation they were being harassed."

Efforts for creating a skatepark were sent into a dormant phase by numerous rebuffs, but they started up again once an infusion of new interest and participation was reestablished--some of it from the city itself. The current bid for a skatepark started three years ago. That's when the West County Skatepark Organization was established, and the kids involved did fundraising for the $1,000 needed to set it up as a nonprofit.

Organization members spent the better part of a year looking at sites, both new and old--over 30, in all. Sites at the Teen Center, Ragle Ranch Park, and Libby Park were considered, but all were eventually rejected.

"It's really been a long, uphill struggle," says Pippé. "We've had so many people say no, we've gone through so many different public hearings, we've gone through meetings, this group shooting us down, this neighborhood shooting us down."

"We decided to take the path of least resistance," Kohl says, which is how the Skateboard Organization arrived at the Laguna Park Way site. It's close to the downtown, nary a quarter of a block away from the police station, and--most importantly--it's gotten the go-ahead from the Sebastopol Planning Commission. What objections could there possibly be?

 

Flynn Street is a short, dead-end street with just under two dozen residents. "It's really a neat neighborhood," says Gail Hamilton, who rents out a duplex on Flynn Street and lives in Santa Rosa. "I know it looks sort of funky, but it's just people who have been living there for a long time. It's very safe there--the kids have always played out in the streets." Hamilton has been very involved with voicing the Flynn Street residents' concerns about the skatepark.

"The whole thing was kept very low-key so that nobody even knew," says Hamilton on the city's methods of informing Flynn Street residents of important facts regarding the skatepark-garden. On Oct. 17, 2002, Kenyon Webster, planning director for the city of Sebastopol, sent out a letter to property owners, residents, and businesses bordering the proposed Laguna Park Way site to alert them that the city of Sebastopol had entered into a purchase contract for the site. "We are anticipating that this design will evolve in response to comments from the public as well as from potential users of the garden and skateboard park," the letter read.

"We were reassured that 'this is probably not going to happen' by Kenyon Webster, and so we relaxed, assuming he meant what he said," says Hamilton. "And then we found out they actually even had plans drawn up several months later."

Actual plans have not been drawn up, though Wormhoudt Inc.-- an internationally respected skatepark design firm based in Santa Cruz, whom the West County Skatepark Organization has on retainer--made up some preliminary designs just to get an idea of how the park might take shape. The skatepark itself has been allocated 15,000 square feet, taking up less than half the space of the property.

The garden would be integrated around the skating areas. "The idea we have promoted is two separate areas: one for the beginners, and one for the advanced skaters," Kohl says. "The skaters that came to our last meeting on design were receptive to that idea, because they said there was an issue between the little guys and the big guys on the same surface."

And the proximity to downtown is a vital element, says Kohl. "We've talked with other skatepark organizations that have built parks in the county, and we said, 'Well, what would you do differently if you had [to do] it all over?' One of the main things they said was, 'We would build the park closer to the downtown area.'"

The projected cost of the skatepark is still up in the air. "We're taking it one step at a time," Kohl says, "until we get funding and open space, and see how much more money we need to raise. We are getting private donations coming in, and we have some more grants we're looking at." The West County Skatepark Organization has already gained approval for a $199,919 grant from Community Partnerships for Youth that was awarded in April.

Every resident on Flynn Street with the exception of one signed a petition against locating a skatepark on the proposed site. Residents then met with Webster and Edelheit. "We had one community meeting where all of neighbors got together with the city, and the community was . . . pretty upset," Edelheit says. "They didn't really know what was going on, and they felt that the city was trying to do things behind their back. We got a lot of input from the community and the neighborhood as far as what they would like to see.

"I think one of the biggest concerns of the community," continues Edelheit, "is they felt that the city is trying to drive this through, and they want to make sure the process is done fairly. They don't want encroachment on their privacy or their right to have a peaceful neighborhood."

The neighborhood's biggest issues are noise, graffiti, parking, and flooding. "We've talked about security, and they haven't had answers as to how that would happen," says Elizabeth Tessier. She and her husband have lived on Flynn Street in a rented duplex for two years. "If there was graffiti, they've said the park would be closed, and we said, 'What about graffiti on our property?'"

The Skatepark Organization has proposed putting up a 7-foot- to 8-foot-high cement wall or planting barriers on both sides to block the noise and keep people from going into the industrial area or accessing the park from Flynn Street. "But the truth of the matter is," Tessier says, "unless you put razor wire on top of the fence, they're going to get in if the gate's locked. If they want to skate at night, they're going to get in." When Tessier--who used to skate in a drainage ditch off Todd Road when she was younger--was asked if she used to do stuff like that herself, she readily admits she did.

"I knew the good skateboarders and bad skateboarders, and I knew that not only the good kids of Sebastopol were going to be coming here, and that there would be drug--more than just the kids from high school walking through here and smoking pot," Tessier says.

The Skatepark Organization said it would look into constructing the park without night lighting to help enforce a sunset closing time, although the potential of having evening events was brought up at the planning commission meeting.

As for the noise, Edelheit says "the wheels that kids use today are not known to make noise. More noise will probably come from them having fun--and skaters don't hip and holler when they're skating. They're concentrating."

Edelheit says that there are a lot of "fear factors" involved. "When we had our public meeting, people were afraid that 'foul-mouthed, dyed [hair] kids'--as if they were mutants of society--were going to be here. I think we're disconnected from the youth of the community on a large scale," Edelheit says. "Theoretically, the community should want a park. "

Kohl continues, "The issues are always the same: lights, noise, graffiti, eliminating green space and building concrete structures, and the 'undesirable element'--whatever that is. You're talking about our kids."

But Tessier says, "It's not like my husband and I are blind to what youth is--we remember quite well. I'm all for skateboard parks. I'd just like to be able to be working here without hearing kids swearing and screaming."

Regarding parking, Edelheit estimates that there's street parking for about 100 cars along Laguna Park Way--and there is some bus transportation. "Kids just don't drive to skateparks," he says. Or if they do, they carpool with a friend or have a parent drop them off. But what about out-of-town skaters? Will the skatepark's use be heavy enough to make parking an issue?

Hamilton thinks so. "I don't know why Sebastopol feels like they need to make a giant park for the entire West County. And I lived in West County; I know the West County. People are going to drive. And there are going to be cars parked, it's not just going to be moms dropping their kids off."

Tessier agrees. "If there is a garage sale on this street, we can't get out of our driveway. It's essentially a one-lane street. I think that they'll go to the spot that's closer to the park. Flynn Street is right before the park. Laguna Park Way is a good block away."

But Camille Torres, RITES representative to the community, says, "Most of those issues, I feel we've already solved for them. The parking issue keeps coming up, and we'll make it very clear that parking is not going to be on their street."

Torres adds that "skaters are willing to volunteer and clean up, too. . . . These kids have been working for so many years, and they keep getting turned down every time. And we're close, we're really close."

The enthusiasm of the RITES Project is palpable. One gets the feeling that if anyone could pull off a skatepark and community permaculture garden, it's them. "Coming into the RITES Project, I find their meetings are a breath of fresh air--a lot of idea exchange, a lot of potential," says Pippé. "It's really nice having support; it's a newfound hope from someplace where we didn't expect it."

Edelheit explains the need for "a symbiotic relationship between the garden and the skatepark, because it's not just about youth. Why can't we combine the youth and children and adults and seniors, and have true multi-use? Our goal is to not make it a cement playground, but integration between green space and active recreation. The RITES Project, who are all permaculturists and ecologists, want to have a natural setting."

"We want to create a mixture," Torres says. "A lot of people who spend time in community parks, they're elderly and have the time to hang out and garden all day. And so we want to find different ways to bring this together." The inclusion of a bocce court has even been mentioned, as well as a stage for classes on gardening and permaculture, and a medicine garden for the skaters (or anyone else) to use in case they get scraped.

"One of the really important things [the RITES Project is] trying to do is empower kids with knowledge," Torres says. "It seems a lot of the time kids are pushed out of society--'Don't skate in the park, don't go here, you can't do this.' But they still have to have a presence. I think we have an obligation as a community to identify that and do what we can to manifest it."

"The youth are part of us," says Edelheit. "We want to eliminate the separation and give them some respect here."

Respect is what the Flynn Street residents would like, too. "This isn't a way to treat people," says Hamilton. "Nobody had plenty of notice; we had to fight for every notice we got. When we made a big thing about it, then they gave us notice. To me, it's over, and that's how I feel right now," says Hamilton. "It's framing us as antiskate people. We're not against kids."

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From the July 3-9, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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