Cruisin" on Snake Hill - Kid-made mountain bike trails in Luther Burbank may be vandalism

By Ruth Longoria

With a coal shovel in one hand and a rake in plain sight in the other, two 15- and 16-year-old Island boys left the site of what a Park's Department employee told police on the afternoon of June 8 was an act of vandalism. But, the boys didn't appear to know what they'd done was in any way illegal.

Island kids have been doing this for years, and there was never an issue before, one of the youths told police when questioned about the bike ramp they'd been working on. The ramp cut a 60-foot trail through the dirt and grass of south Luther Burbank Park causing about $700 in damage to that patch of sod, the park's employee said.

No charges were filed against the youths, in part, because there is some question as to what is and isn't allowed in that section of the park. That was the reasoning the teenagers gave police, who echoed the same sentiment to the park's employee. Bike ramps have been in use there since before the city took over the park from King County. If the Parks Department wants to stop kids from using the park, there needs to be some education to the public of what is no longer allowed, said Officer S.M. Hyderkhan, who responded to the vandalism call.

``The park is not posted to say that bikes cannot be used in it, nor has it been disseminated to say that past practices (building bike courses) that were once accepted by King County Parks, is no longer acceptable behavior,'' Hyderkhan wrote in the police report.

Last year, after King County turned over Luther Burbank Park to the City of Mercer Island, there was no formal decision as to what to do with the former bike ramp area. Now, park staff and residents agree, as park staff begin to look at the future of the park, it's time to decide what -- if anything -- should be done to that section of Luther Burbank to provide a safe area for the bicycling young people.

``It's not as easy as telling them (the bicyclists) to go somewhere else,'' said Pete Mayer, director of the Island's Parks & Recreation Department. ``We're not against the kids being there, but we don't want to disrupt what we're trying to do with vegetation down there, and there's liability issues involved.''

Mayer said he'd like to see parents and neighbors talk about the issue, and, possibly come up with a solution that works for the city, the kids and the park.

``My goal is to get neighbors talking to neighbors,'' he said. He's on his way to accomplishing that goal. A meeting between bicyclists, their parents, park neighbors and park staff, is being planned for sometime after the Summer Celebration, Mayer said. ``I'm confident we'll find some kind of compromise,'' he said.

The portion of the park in question is not formally maintained and a well-worn path leads to where there used to be an old rope swing and an old wooden tree fort. Now, it's just a forested area with trails and the crudely-cut bike jump ramps.

It's the same portion of the park that caused a stir three years ago when the city was considering building affordable housing there for Island teachers, police, fire and other less-than-average-Island-income workers. Many Islanders were upset by that possibility, and showed up at City Council meetings to protest and urge the council to protect the green space as it was. That form of thought won out, and three years later, the bike swing and tree fort are gone, but the bike ramps remain, along with questions as to what is allowed on that parcel of land.

In the past year, the city has offered several meetings in which the public was allowed to provide input into what kinds of changes or improvements folks would like to see at Luther Burbank. The city's Web site currently has a section devoted to the park. That portion is titled: ``Luther Burbank ... Make it your park.'' There, residents can read what's new or being planned at the park, as well as find out how to become involved in future planning for the park.

In April, at a City Council retreat in La Conner, the council agreed to have Parks & Recreation Department staff begin work on a new master plan for the park. Though Mayor Alan Merkle has repeatedly said that there won't be a massive development of buildings and restaurants at the park, the master plan will take into consideration expressed public opinion and previously decided upon areas that won't be developed.

At the upcoming July 5 City Council meeting, Mayer is expected to let the council know who he wants to facilitate the planning process. Recommendations for the new master plan should be presented to the council by the end of the year, said City Councilman Dan Grausz.

Grausz said he agrees with Mayer, and is torn on the bicycles issue -- between what's good for the park and an opportunity for young people to have somewhere they can go for healthy fun.

Despite the risks involved, Grausz thinks it's not out of the question for the city to possibly set aside a portion of the park for bicycle ramps.

``If there's a solution, the neighbors need to sit down and come up with a solution that they can present to the city,'' he said. ``If they can figure this out in an environmentally appropriate manner, it may be possible, the same way the city built the skate park in Mercerdale Park -- that's been amazingly successful. It's not beyond the realm of possibility to put risky aspects in parks.''

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