Despite rumors, there will be no tent cities in county parks

Handmade signs like this one posted at White Bear Lake’s County Park in September led people to believe parks would open 24 hours a day, inviting tent cities. Overnight camping is not allowed, and a revised ordinance won’t change that policy.  

ST. PAUL — First, Ramsey County commissioners do not intend to open parks 24 hours a day. They do intend to expand hours countywide from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

The recommendation about doubles the hours parks are open during winter months, which suits ice fishermen using boat launches, stargazers and those who enjoy skiing trails by moonlight. 

Park hours currently in the county extend from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. 

Hours were one of three key areas considered by county commissioners at a Nov. 2 workshop to review staff recommendations for the park ordinance project, which seeks to revise usage rules that haven't changed in 15 years. 

Park hours, tobacco use and penalties for violations were included in an online survey this summer asking residents their thoughts before the county drafted a revised ordinance. According to Parks and Recreation Director Mark McCabe, of the 8,700 comments received, the "overwhelming concern" was 24/7 park hours. Residents were worried that parks would post signs allowing 24-hour access, which could result in overnight encampments or "tent cities." 

McCabe assured commissioners that current policy does not allow overnight camping in county parks and that the policy does not change with any revisions to the ordinance. 

The director acknowledged his department's hard work on the yearlong project, telling commissioners he thinks the draft ordinance is "reflective of community feedback and an update that advances racial equity." Key participants in an internal review also included the sheriff's office, county attorney and the parks racial equity leadership team.

Participants in the survey totaled about 1,500, with 9% of respondents identified as racially and ethnically diverse, McCabe noted, adding it was "not as high as we would like." 

Regarding park hours, White Bear Lake Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said she preferred an earlier, 10 p.m. close. “We don’t have lights in most parks, and I don’t see someone having a picnic at 11 p.m.,” she observed.

Commissioner Joy Frethem supported the earlier close as well, but the other board members said if there was a change, they’d opt for midnight. 

In the end, the commissioners decided to stay with the original 11 p.m. recommendation.  

Other changes moving forward in the revised ordinance: 

• Smoking and tobacco use. This currently varies by municipality. Both the county and city of White Bear Lake have no ban. Washington County bans use within 100 feet of beaches, playgrounds or buildings. The recommendation is to address use within a countywide ordinance for better clarity and consistency. 

• Fines and penalties for violations. All violations are currently a misdemeanor with a maximum $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail. “If someone dumps massive waste in a park, which can happen, or if someone walks on a cross-country ski trail, they are subject to the same fine,” McCabe pointed out. “So there’s room for improvement.”

The proposed ordinance will decriminalize violations in favor of administrative fines in a tiered system. Serious offenses that include property damage, dumping and discharge of weapons and fireworks face a $300 fine. Violation of permits, vehicle operation or damage to natural resources face a $100 fine and things like littering, violation of park hours and loud audio devices face a $50 fine. 

Law enforcement can choose to charge someone with a more severe penalty so the change does not take away the ability to utilize state statute.

• Proposed changes also include an inclusivity statement; allowing foraging of fruits, nuts and berries; modernizing parks for electric bikes and drones; adding geocache placement rules; allowing 10x10 canopies; adding protections regarding dumping liquids in parks; and allowing crossbows for adaptive use. 

 

Next steps in the project include finalizing the ordinance and holding a public hearing. Early 2022 is the final approval target. 

“We learned a lot through this process,” McCabe said. “We arrived at recommendations we feel good about and in alliance with what we heard. 

“Posted park hours help protect people and property,” he continued. “There were concerns about the need to protect wildlife. They should be given time to not be disturbed. Park lands benefit from a rest from human interaction.” 

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