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Originally published Monday, February 28, 2011 at 2:34 AM

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Speedboarding surge sparks spat in hillside city

When teens on skateboards hurtle down the winding streets that overlook the Pacific Ocean cliffs in this hillside city, they feel the rush of the wind on their face and adrenaline pumping through their veins.

Associated Press

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. —

When teens on skateboards hurtle down the winding streets that overlook the Pacific Ocean cliffs in this hillside city, they feel the rush of the wind on their face and adrenaline pumping through their veins.

They apparently don't feel the terror that residents of upscale Laguna Beach describe upon pulling out of their driveways and nearly ramming into them.

The surge in high-speed downhill skateboarding in this free-spirited seaside enclave has sparked a fierce debate over what place the exhilarating but perilous sport has on fantastically steep inclines that take residents to their hilltop homes.

Young thrill-seekers contend their passion for skateboarding keeps them fit and active and off the couch playing video games after school. They say those who practice skating seriously wear helmets and gloves to protect themselves against the risks.

But residents of the narrow streets that are prime for downhill runs say they've nearly crashed into the so-called speedboarders and don't want to wait for an accident to happen. They're now pushing to ban skateboarding on some of the city's steepest streets.

"When you have a close call with a kid, it's seared into your memory," said Sue Kempf, 54. "I just don't want to be responsible for hitting a kid."

The conflict has played out in cities elsewhere in California blessed by curvy hillsides and spectacular views. Malibu banned skateboarding on some of its streets in 2009.

While especially popular on the West Coast of the U.S., downhill skateboarding has also taken off in Canada, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere.

Longtime skateboard enthusiasts say the predecessor to today's speedboarding craze started in the 1970s in Signal Hill, a steep incline overlooking the California city of Long Beach, when teens began barreling down the hill lying flat on their boards.

For years, ramp skating and tricks were more popular forms of skateboarding. Laguna Beach residents recall young people using their boards to get to and from school, but often wiping out on steep inclines or curves.

"It's like Footloose for skateboarding," 37-year-old Tyler Rootlieb said of the efforts to ban the sport in his hometown. "We always skated the hills - we just weren't as good as these guys."

Over the last decade, downhill skateboarding has boomed, fueled by better-made longboards with softer wheels and tech-savvy teens who share their experiences over YouTube.

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More than 850 downhill skateboarders competed in an event sanctioned by the International Gravity sports Association last year, compared with roughly 150 a decade ago, said Marcus Rietema, the association's president.

A big challenge for the young athletes is finding a spot to skate regularly since there are no designated practice areas, Rietema said, noting ideally teens would skate on closed roads beyond city limits.

"It is bad when they're out bombing hills in residential neighborhoods," he said. "You're asking for trouble when you are mixing it up with cars."

In Laguna Beach, a dozen teenage boys, some wearing braces and black jeans, trudge a few hundred feet up the Oak Street hill before hunching over their boards and whizzing down at what they estimated to be 25 miles per hour, whizzing SUVs making their way up the hill.

"It's like you're a bird," said a breathless 14-year-old Wyatt Gibbs, who started speedboarding a little over a year ago and now competes nationally. "You're free, you're a seagull," he said, pointing at the sun-kissed Pacific Ocean a few blocks away.

Earlier this month, Laguna Beach residents packed a city council meeting over the proposed ban. Council members agreed to prohibit skateboarding on four streets and will consider additional regulations at a meeting in March, said City Manager John Pietig.

Wyatt's father, Chad Gibbs, said he supports efforts to police kids who don't wear helmets or heed traffic signals. But he doesn't let his son venture up to Laguna's so-called "black diamond" hills, and thinks parents, not the city, should decide whether they skate.

"I parent my child to have him do what he loves to do within reason," Gibbs said. "Nothing is going to make him 100 percent safe, but I can at least put restrictions on what I deem safe."

But many residents say they can't rely on all parents to keep their children off the most harrowing hills. In January, a 17-year-old died in Los Angeles after he fell while skateboarding down a hill without a helmet.

Police in Laguna Beach say they received more than 400 complaints about skateboarders and 11 reports of collisions in the last three years.

Police department liaison Jim Beres said the faster someone is going on a skateboard, the more potentially serious the injury in a crash.

"Imagine if you're skiing downhill and you hit a tree - what kind of injuries would you sustain?

Young skaters claim they can control their boards and stop them as fast, or faster, than a bicycle. Many say they want grown-ups in Laguna Beach to remember what it's like to be a kid.

Those memories are what frighten many adults when they see teens whizzing through the city in search of speed.

"I don't think there are better hills," said Laguna Beach Mayor Toni Iseman. "If I were a kid and I had no fear of death, I would say Laguna is heaven."

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