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Skateboard fans work to bring a park to Towson

What started out as a question about the possibility of getting a skatepark installed in a Towson-area park has turned into a formal skate council that will help shape the future of skateparks in the county.

Bill Felter — a biologist who lives in Anneslie with his wife, Lynnelle Noll, and their daughter — was hoping the Department of Recreation and Parks would give a green light to his idea for a skatepark in Overlook Park.

Bill Felter and his daughter; Photo courtesy of Bill Felter

When he and three other skating enthusiasts — Joe Fitzpatrick of Skatepark of Baltimore, Gary Smith of Vu Skateshop, and Brett Smith of ESPN X Games — met with a county official, the response was a bit of a shock.

“Much to our surprise, Baltimore County is completely supportive of our desire to bring modern concrete skateparks to our communities; so much so that they have even offered to help us create a dedicated Baltimore County Skatepark Council to assist with the planning, construction and oversight of more skateparks,” Felter said in an email. 

The newly created Baltimore County Skatepark Partnership is holding an informational meeting this Thursday at 7:30 PM at the Cockeysville library. Anyone interested in improving and expanding skateparks in the county is welcome to attend.

“When people come up with innovative and creative ideas, I say let’s see what it looks like,” said Barry F. Williams, head of Recreation and Parks. “We have some skateparks around the county but not all of them are fully utilized and this may help and they may be able to shape them in a way that could be more usable.”

He pointed to the Baltimore County Sailing Center as a model for this kind of partnership. The skatepark organizers are now planning to, with the help of the county, become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity.

Williams said he thinks that depending on the groundswell of support the group gets, there could be a new skatepark up and running by 2020.

Here’s a Q&A with Felter about skateboarding and his vision for parks:

How long have you been skateboarding?
On and off since I was 8. Aside from a few years in my early 30s, I’ve always had a skateboard around. Now I keep two in my car all the time.

What do you like about it?
It sounds pretty simple but at its core skateboarding is just good, clean fun. You don’t need to be strong, or fast, or tall to be a skateboarder. You don’t need to make the team or score a goal. All you need is a skateboard and a good attitude. That, and a sense of humor because in the beginning you’re going to fall; a lot. And you’re going to feel like an idiot but having a sense of humor about the whole thing is going to give you what it takes to get up and keep trying.

Skateboarding is honest. It’s creative. It’s a means of individual expression. You can’t cheat at skateboarding.

Skateboarding is not easy. It takes practice and determination and a will to succeed, just like everything else in life. And perhaps best of all, in a society that invented the participation trophy, there are few tangible rewards other than self-satisfaction and a few scrapes and bruises. Skateboarding is honest. It’s creative. It’s a means of individual expression. You can’t cheat at skateboarding.

Why does the Towson area need a skate park?
For the same reasons it needs sports fields, tennis courts and playgrounds. People need appropriate spaces to recreate and spend time enjoying the outdoors with their friends and families. Skateboarders are no exception. Without a safe, legal place to skate, skateboarders of all ages are left with few legal options other than to ride on public streets and sidewalks. This is both a safety hazard and a completely inadequate venue for modern skateboarding.

Without a safe, legal place to skate, skateboarders have been forced to make due with what they have, and that means skateboarding someplace it isn’t wanted. This often results in run-ins with law enforcement, aggravated business owners, even your next-door neighbor.

One of the reasons skateboarders have gained a bad reputation is that without an appropriate place to skate, we are left to find places that lend themselves to the kinds of tricks that have developed over more than 40 years of skateboard history. Modern street skating was invented in the early 1980s at the exact same time many private, for-profit skateparks were closing due to a crash in skateboarding’s popularity and ever increasing number of law suits; but skateboarding didn’t disappear with them. Kids were still doing the same tricks they were doing in the skateparks but adapted them to the only terrain that was available which in most cases was found on government and private property. There’s a well-known phrase in the skatepark advocacy world which goes, “If your city doesn’t have a skatepark, your city IS a skatepark.” Without a safe, legal place to skate, skateboarders have been forced to make due with what they have, and that means skateboarding someplace it isn’t wanted. This often results in run-ins with law enforcement, aggravated business owners, even your next-door neighbor.

When was the last time you saw a lacrosse team looking over their shoulders to see if they were going to get chased off the field by the police?

Just to make a comparison, when was the last time you saw a lacrosse team looking over their shoulders to see if they were going to get chased off the field by the police? Or a mother and daughter practicing soccer drills, hoping they can get in 10 minutes of practice before someone yells, “Hey, that’s not allowed here!” Skateboarders have to deal with that on a daily basis. Public skateparks provide a safe, legal place for people to skate in a setting that is purposely built for skateboarding. Why building skateparks seems like such a radical concept is beyond me.

Another very practical reason Towson (and other communities, for that matter) needs a skatepark is that skateboarding will be featured as a new event in the 2020 Summer Olympics. There is a very strong potential for skateboarding to go through the same sudden jump in popularity as snowboarding did after the 1998 Winter Olympics. There will literally be hundreds, if not thousands of new skateboarders born overnight, and unless we begin the work now to prepare for that day those kids and their parents will wake up to the realization that there are very few places in their community to legally ride a skateboard and even fewer with the proper skateboarding infrastructure. Skateboarding has proven that it’s not a passing fad or fringe activity for misguided, angry, male, teenagers, and it’s time to include skateparks as standard elements in our taxpayer-supported public parks.

One of the other not-so-obvious benefits of safe public skateparks is the growth in the number of female skaters. In 2014 women’s skateboarding was the fastest-growing demographic in action sports. This increase in the number of female skaters can be directly attributed to the increased availability of safe, legal places to skate.

And lastly, countering all logic, skateboarding has become a lifetime sport. I know so many men and women who are far beyond their 30s who are still skating; many of them at a very high level. As a matter of fact, the last time I went to a skatepark there were more people over 40 skating than those under 30! Call it a mid-life crisis if you want but skateboarding has tangible health benefits to those, including me, who hate going to the gym or participating in “age-appropriate” exercise like running or biking. I have arthritis and bursitis in my left knee that makes running incredibly painful but I can ride a skateboard for hours before I throw in the towel; and then it’s because my muscles are sore and not my knee!

What location do you have in mind?
The idea began with wanting to add a small skateboarding area at Overlook Park in Idlewylde. It’s a great community park and serves a large area of south Towson. One of the first things I learned when I began investigating suitable areas within the park for a skate spot was the impending stream restoration project along Herring Run. I contacted both Baltimore County Rec and Parks and Baltimore County Office of Environmental Protection and Sustainability to learn more about the park and any current or future plans for development when the restoration project was finished.

The Office of Environmental Protection and Sustainability informed me that the existing sand volleyball court would be removed to provide a staging area for vehicles and equipment related to the restoration project. I was also informed by the project lead that the volleyball court would not be replaced and that the Rec and Parks and Office of Environmental Protection and Sustainability were looking into ideas for what to put in its place. Based on its location I feel that this area, along with an adjacent space, would be more than adequate for a small skate spot. It wouldn’t infringe on existing field space or any other current use in the park and could be located far enough from nearby houses to help reduce noise issues. In addition a skate spot at Overlook Park would, if anything, lead to increased use of the park by members of the public who are not enrolled in a Rec Council sports program. Over the last year, I’ve visited Overlook Park dozens of times and in many cases I’ve been the only one there. In the three years I have been back into skateboarding I have never once seen an empty skatepark.

What would the ramps and flat area be made of?
Ideally all future skateparks or skate spots would be made of poured concrete. It’s the industry standard and is much more attractive to skateboarders for many reasons, not the least of which is safety. A skateboard runs on very small wheels and a smooth surface is incredibly important to prevent injuries; especially when it comes to new skaters. Even small variations in the quality of the surface can mean the difference between landing a trick safely or a trip to the hospital.

In addition to safety, concrete offers many other benefits when compared to the modular steel ramps currently used at the County’s skateparks. Concrete requires less routine maintenance, it’s easy to clean, and offers a much longer service life. For instance; Lansdowne Skatepark, near Arbutus, was built in 1976 and is one of the oldest municipal skateparks in the country. It has had very little in the way of routine maintenance over the years yet is still smooth enough to skate after more than 40 years. Another of concrete’s strengths is that it’s a very quiet riding surface compared to metal ramps. Reducing a skate spot’s “signature” can increase public support and creating a space that’s a good neighbor is of utmost importance.

And lastly when given a choice, skateboarders will always choose concrete as the more ideal surface. Many of the skateboarders I know do not go to the County skateparks specifically because of the metal ramps and rough, asphalt surface between them.

Cockeysville skatepark

Do you know about how much it would cost?
Estimates that I’ve gathered from professional skatepark builders put the cost between $25-$40 per square foot. That cost includes design, site preparation and construction. I’ve been given quotes as low as $17 per square foot for projects that can be built on existing hard surfaces such as basketball and tennis courts. There are currently three basketball courts within the Towson-Towsontowne jurisdiction in which the basketball hoops have been purposely removed by the county, and given that these courts have no other clear recreational use I don’t see why those sites couldn’t be considered.

Creating a space that is pleasing to the eye and provides a fun place to recreate is totally possible.

Do you think people will have a “not in my backyard” attitude about a skate park?
Absolutely. No one wants anything in their backyard these days, least of which an attractive nuisance, which is how some people would view a skatepark. The most you can do is address people’s concerns as best as possible and find areas of common ground and compromise. Skateboarders have had a bad rap for a long time and working to improve that reputation is part of the work. Aside from this social aspect I feel that some aesthetic objections can be overcome with smart skatepark design and site work. Creating a space that is pleasing to the eye and provides a fun place to recreate is totally possible. In addition, objections to loss of green space can be countered with environmental best practices including storm water management plans and even green roofs to provide shade while also minimizing run-off into neighboring streams.

I’m interested in challenging what people think of when they hear the word, “skatepark”and I feel that my background in environmental planning gives me a unique perspective when it comes to the need to balance recreation and environmental stewardship.

For more information, visit the Baltimore County Skatepark Partnership’s Facebook page.


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