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Portage panel considers requiring helmets for skate park users

June 9, 2018 GMT

As the members of the city of Portage’s Parks and Recreation Board gathered Tuesday in the Goodyear Park shelter, they couldn’t help but notice none of the six youths using the Portage Family Skate Park was wearing a helmet.

Maybe, some suggested, city officials should consider requiring helmets at the skate park – possibly to the extent of making it an ordinance violation to skate without head protection.

Nothing was decided, as the five board members began a process of updating the city’s ordinances to reflect the existence of the skate park, opened in 2016.

The ordinance needs updating, said Parks and Recreation Manager Dan Kremer, mainly to reflect that the city no longer has a skateboard park at Townsend and Superior streets near the Columbia County Fairgrounds – and the rules that governed that skateboarding area might not be applicable to the Portage Family Skate Park in Goodyear Park.

One of the rules for the old skate park, under the existing ordinance, is that a helmet was required, and anyone not wearing a helmet while skating could be cited and possibly fined.

The ordinance changes, as proposed, would not include a requirement to wear a helmet – although they would prohibit bicycles in the skate park, and would prohibit users from bringing outside items (such as benches and tables) to form obstacles, jumps or ramps that are not permanently built in to the facility.

At the Portage Family Skate Park, the rules posted on the site encourage, but don’t require, users to wear a helmet.

Maybe a helmet should be required at the Portage Family Skate Park, said board member Tim Haak.

“I can’t believe you don’t have it in your rules,” he said.

Kremer said one option might be to make wearing a helmet a rule, but not an ordinance requirement.

But if the ordinance specifies that skate park users must obey all posted rules, said board member Mark Hahn, and if the posted rules are changed to require a helmet, then that could be tantamount to making a helmet a legal requirement.

Kyle Little, president of the Portage Family Skate Park organization, said he has several concerns about the prospect of requiring skate park users to wear head protection – although he said he wears a helmet when he skates, and encourages skaters of all ages to do so.

He said parents should take responsibility for ensuring that their minor children use the skate park, and any other recreational facility, as safely as possible – including ensuring the youngsters have safety equipment like helmets and knee pads.

Adult users should make an informed choice about the use of helmets, and the risks of not wearing head protection, just as adult motorcycle operators do, Little said.

But if people can’t use the skate park without wearing a helmet, then use likely will go down, and the tourism benefits that Portage reaps from the skate park’s presence will dry up.

“I’m here to instill safety,” Little said, “but also to defend the right of the users to have free choice.”

At the meeting, Kremer noted that the Portage Family Skate Park is located within the boundaries of a city park – meaning that Wisconsin’s “recreational immunity” statute applies.

Recreational immunity, in a nutshell, limits the liability of a property owner (including a public body, such as a city) in cases of injuries sustained by people participating in recreational activities on the property.

“I’ve seen a lot of skate parks where kids don’t wear helmets,” he said.

Board member Mike Charles suggested, and the board agreed, to send the proposed ordinance changes to officials like City Administrator Shawn Murphy and City Attorney Jesse Spankowski to finalize the language of the proposed ordinance change. The Parks and Recreation Board, and likely also the Common Council’s Legislative and Regulatory Commission, would scrutinize the final language before the Common Council would consider adopting any changes.