Cold snaps stir debate over safety, rules of skating on Lake Roland

For decades, Kay McConnell and her family joined those who lace up skates and take to Lake Roland in Robert E. Lee Park when winter freezes ice over the former reservoir.

The McConnells' three children were on the ice as young as toddlers, one of them using an old sled as a walker of sorts. After measuring the ice to be at least 5 inches thick, with at least five days of sub-freezing temperatures, neighbors around the lake's north end would flock to the ice — so long as snowfall didn't make the surface too bumpy.

"We don't live somewhere there's ice for months like Ottawa or something like that," McConnell said. "It's something you wait for, watch for and prepare for and you have that moment of being able to enjoy it and then it's gone. It's not something to be wasted just because people are afraid of injury or lawsuits."

But those safety concerns put the tradition to an end this winter. After weeks of single-digit low temperatures, the ice was thick and smooth last month, but someone called 911 to report people on the ice, frustrating police who had to trek through the park to shoo them off, park officials said. Now, park rangers are enforcing a long-standing ban on skating in all Baltimore County parks.

Police and park rangers elsewhere around the region also cracked down on skating. Games of hockey have broken out on Patterson Park's boat lake, but skaters have been asked to stay off, because the lake's depths can reach 11 feet, said Gwendolyn Chambers, a city parks spokeswoman. Residents around the park began using the little lake for skating shortly after it was created in 1864, according to Friends of Patterson Park.

While the frigid temperatures not seen in two decades bring back nostalgia among longtime area residents used to more frequent skating, it's not the same world as the one in which the Chesapeake Bay froze over in 1977, parks officials told area residents at a meeting Tuesday.

"Our society has become a lot more litigious, and that really is the reason" for the enforcement, county parks Director Barry Williams told about a dozen park visitors and neighbors. "There is no skating in Baltimore County."

Residents who live in the neighborhoods on the hills around the lake say the tradition of skating on the lake goes back decades as generations passed down their love for the hobby and their safety tips. For years, when the lake and park were under the authority of Baltimore City officials, rules to keep off the ice were considered little more than a friendly reminder to skate responsibly.

Decades ago, county parks allowed skating. Staff were even in place to measure ice and monitor skaters, Williams said.

Baltimore County assumed responsibility for Lake Roland and Robert E. Lee Park in 2009, investing millions of dollars in a nature center, dog park, hiking and biking trails, fountains, benches, restrooms and improved access to the lake. Since then, opportunities to skate have been rare, with residents recalling brief periods in 2009 and 2010.

But concerns about keeping people off the ice heightened in recent weekends, when several callers to 911 reported children skating. When officers had to come twice to ask one group to stay off, they warned that citations would be issued going forward, park rangers said. None have been issued so far, Williams said.

No citations have been in issued at Patterson Park either, Chambers said.

Friends of Patterson Park, a nonprofit that advocates for the park, discourages skating on the boating lake, said Jennifer Arndt Robinson, the group's executive director.

"We have real concerns about safety," said Robinson, citing the likelihood of thin ice.

Aerators in the water operate throughout the winter to keep the water from stagnating, which can thin any ice, she added.

But skating proponents argue that blanket no-skating policies are illogical. At the Lake Roland meeting, residents pointed out that boating is allowed on the lake year-round and was occurring well into December, they said. If a boat were to capsize during winter, it would pose the same risks of hypothermia to victims and first responders that park officials cite as a reason for prohibiting skating, they argued.

In areas at the northern end of Lake Roland where skating has been common, the water is only a few feet deep, they said. The McConnells and others said they measure the ice to at least 5 inches before skating with their children.

"This is an important part of why we have parks," said Richard Jamison, a neighbor to the park and a former city fire commissioner. "The objective should be to find ways to accommodate the public."

But Williams explained that he couldn't bend any rules without intervention by the County Council. When residents asked if Williams could point to any county regulation or law that prohibits skating, he said he could not but would ask county lawyers to research it.

"I do believe that folks here would be real responsible, but it's a county policy, and we can't except Lake Roland," he said.

County Councilwoman Vicki Almond said she had passed the skaters along to Williams because she said she "didn't feel equipped" to give them an answer. When she was told Williams had recommended they seek council intervention, she said she would talk with them.

"I'd be more than happy to listen to them, but I don't know what could come of it just yet," Almond said.

Neighbors said they wouldn't be the only ones affected. When the county took over the park, it became its seventh regional park, and its fifth with a nature center, designed to serve central neighborhoods in the county.

Because of its proximity to the city, it is also a resource to city youth, said Mark Conner, who organizes a program called Hockey in the Hood that teaches children from Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood the winter sport. Conner recently took 17 boys to play hockey on Loch Raven before getting asked to leave, and has in the past taken boys to Lake Roland, where he played hockey as a boy himself.

"Whenever lakes and ponds freeze we like to get our kids out because they're not going to have that experience any other time, ever," Conner said. "To be denied that opportunity when it just doesn't make sense, doesn't make sense."

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