Can bikes and plants co-exist?

By Ruth Longoria

Finding a way for native plants, young people and bicycles to co-exist in an Island park was the aim of those who gathered at upper Luther Burbank Park last Tuesday afternoon.

About a dozen residents attended the brainstorming session, including park and city staff, one parent, one park neighbor and several kids between the age of 12 and 16.

At question is a forested area of the park, on what's known as Snake Hill, off 28th Avenue S.E. just south of Interstate 90. The area has been used by kids with dirt bikes since long before King County gave Luther Burbank Park to the city.

It's the same area that was the subject of controversy three years ago, when the city considered building affordable housing there for Island teachers, police, fire and other less-than-average-Island-income workers. Some Islanders were upset by that possibility, and showed up at City Council meetings to protest and urge the council to protect the green space.

That form of thought won out, but the bike ramps remain, as do the questions as to what is allowed on that parcel of land.

The kids continue to make use of the firmly packed dirt trails and create new hills and ramps; and, the city workers and activists continue to study the eroding hillsides and pull out invasive plants.

As the discourse began Tuesday afternoon, a half-dozen kids hesitantly descended the hill on their bikes before receiving permission to ride around the group. Those young people said they'd prefer to pedal over the series of dirt bike trails and hills, rather than take part in the organized meeting.

The riders didn't distract from the discussion. In fact, they were fodder for more fervent exchange of dialogue, as Assistant City Attorney Katie Knight questioned the youths in the discussion group about their use of the park and city Arborist Paul West pointed out areas where native vegetation has been destroyed or and damaged by the bikers.

``Compacting the soil down around a tree like that leaves no air space and the tree can't live,'' West said as he pointed to a well worn path encircling a large deciduous tree. ``You're destroying native plants, leaving roots exposed and eroding the hillsides,'' he added.

Cyclist Greg Andonian, 15, responded with a question: ``What does more good -- a jump that a lot of kids can use or a bunch of pretty flowers?''

Though it set off a string of arguments, Andonian's question didn't reflect the spirit of all the cyclists. Some bikers said they'd be willing to put in a few hours of volunteer labor to pull ivy and other invasive plants, if it would appease those currently in opposition to cyclists using the park.

Only one neighboring resident showed up for the meeting, and she preferred not to be quoted in a newspaper article, as she was vocal in her objections to previous discussions of development options for the park and is involved in current park native plant restoration projects. She suggested the young people be required to put in a set amount of time in park restoration in exchange for using the park.

That didn't sit too well with Roger Johnson, whose 16-year-old son, Ryun, is an avid bicyclist. Roger Johnson views the bike area as a positive atmosphere for young people and is more than happy for his teen to risk life and limb in a sport he enjoys.

Two years ago, Ryun broke his collar bone while biking, but his dad pointed out, ``That's something that could happen just riding into a curb.''

Johnson said he doesn't want his son having to do park restoration work as a punishment for riding his bike at the park.

``They shouldn't be punished,'' he said. ``I'd rather them spend time riding their bikes than some of the other things they could be doing.''

He'd also prefer the boys ride their bikes on the Island, rather than have to drive the boys to parks in other cities.

``There's few places for them to ride. I've driven 25 miles up the freeway just to take them to a park,'' he said.

Enumclaw, SeaTac, Burlington and Mount Vernon are cities that have designated bike parks, said Pete Mayer, director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

Ryun Johnson was one of two boys questioned by police last month after West turned the boys in for vandalism. The park arborist came upon the boys one afternoon while the young men were shoveling dirt to fix portions of their jumps, an activity they thought was OK to do in that area of the park.

Although police filed a report on the incident, no charges were made against the youths. Unbeknownst to the boys, that portion of the park -- although seemingly not maintained -- is one of five ``critical restoration projects'' within the city, West said. The designation was decided based on studies of various parks within the city and a rating system that takes into consideration open space and wildlife within the area.

Despite West's aversion to destruction of park property, Parks Department staff appear anxious to work with the young people and neighbors to come up with a solution that works for everyone involved. That's why Mayer organized the brainstorming session and designated West to work with the young people to establish boundaries for where the kids are allowed to ride or make trails and jumps.

The young people are no longer allowed to remove any plants or work on their jumps without permission from city staff. And, staff plan to work out a schedule when a staff member can be at the bike area at specified times (which will be available on the city's Web site) to supervise work on the hills and teach the kids what is OK, as far as digging or moving soil and vegetation.

Tuesday's meeting was a first step in working out a compromise, Mayer said. As well as boundaries for the bike area, there are also decisions to make concerning liabilities and insurance. Riding bicycles in extreme-sport conditions on city land isn't without its risks -- risks the bicyclists might be willing to make, but risks that potentially put the city at risk for lawsuits, said city attorney Knight.

``Before we bless this as a park activity, there's a lot more that has to happen,'' Mayer said. ``The success of the skate park (at Mercerdale Park) involved 40-plus kids at each of the planning meetings. What I'd like to see happen here is a lot more cooperation between the users and the neighbors. ... Every decision we make is big in the scheme of things. A lot of people put work into this park and we want to make sure it is around for generations to come.''

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