Woodside town attorney says limits on bike events are unconstitutional


Woodside may have to scrap most of its rules that limit charity bike rides and other events, now that the town attorney has declared the restrictions legally indefensible and unconstitutional.

A town ordinance requires permits for events of 50 or more people on public roads, and limits such events to two per month, unless the Town Council grants special permission. Although the regulation applies to any special event, it became a lightening rod in the ongoing tension between residents and bicyclists after the council refused to permit two charity bike rides -- benefiting ALS and the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School -- that wanted to pass through town.

Gatherings such as demonstrations, marches and even bike rides are protected under the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech and of assembly, said Town Attorney Jean Savaree.

"It's a public road, the public has the right to use the road, and groups of the public have the right to use the road without any permit requirement being imposed on them, if they're not impeding traffic or the use of the roads," Ms. Savaree told the council at its Oct. 10 meeting.

The town can only impose permit requirements if an event will "unduly impede, obstruct, impair or interfere" with traffic or emergency vehicle access, she said.

She recommended that the council eliminate the two-per-month limit on events and drastically shorten the application timeframe. Under current rules, permit applications must be made at least 120 days prior to an event and the Town Council has 45 days to review the application. That should be shortened to several days, or several weeks at most, Ms. Savaree said.

The well-attended meeting was packed with members of the Old La Honda Road Association who lobbied to preserve a 12-year-old ban on bicycle events and any other activities on their treacherous, winding road.

"Old La Honda Road is the most dangerous road in Woodside, for two reasons: the poor configuration of the road and the extremely high-volume of any type of traffic," said Mary Zvirblis. "You can only fit so many people on a road that's only 12 feet wide."

Five association members gave a PowerPoint presentation about the huge amount of bicycle traffic, unpermitted bike club time trials, and the fear that comes from sharing a road with 33 blind curves and no bike lanes. Several people called for more traffic enforcement by sheriff's deputies, and complained about loud, aggressive, road-blocking bicyclists.

One contrary opinion came from Old La Honda Road resident Eric Risley.

"I think the greatest asset of the road is the bikers," he said. "They slow the traffic down, they keep through-traffic off the road, and they keep motorcyclists off the road."

Ms. Savaree told the council that a blanket prohibition for Old La Honda Road would be hard to defend in court, and recommended against it.

Robert Susk, a former council member, said the town should do everything it can to discourage cyclists from riding through Woodside, such as closing the elementary school parking lot frequented by weekend riders.

“We’re creating a tourist attraction by allowing more and more bike activities,” he said. “I don’t believe now is the time to address a weakening of our ordinance. There have been no challenges (to it).”

Susan Doherty, one of the members of the Woodside Bicycle Committee at the meeting, said she knew that one group that was denied a permit for a charity bike ride prepared a complaint against the town and was ready to bring it to a judge, but backed down because they didn't want their next event to be denied.

Councilman Dave Tanner appeared unimpressed by the threat of lawsuits.

"What if we said, to heck with lawyers and laws, let's just make rules and stick with them?" he said. "Would we not have Woodside any longer? Would we be spanked?

Councilman Pete Sinclair told a cautionary tale about the state of the town when he was first elected to the council 11 years ago.

"There were seven lawsuits against the town. The attitude then was, the law be damned, we’ll do what's right for the town," he said. "The result was $150,000 in annual legal fees, no money for infrastructure and the roads going to pot."

Mr. Sinclair called for more enforcement of traffic laws and stiffer penalties for scofflaws, a move supported by his colleagues. Councilman Paul Goeld said the bike riders drawing the most complaints are the so-called pack rides, ad hoc groups that ride through town en masse. Pack riders are widely criticized for running stop signs, behaving aggressively and refusing to let vehicles pass them.

“At the permitted events, those are probably the best-behaved cyclists out there,” Mr. Goeld said. “You cannot compare the rogue riders with the permitted charity rides where people want to do things right.”

For the time being, the special events ordinance remains unchanged. Council members directed town staff to gather more information, including the services of a traffic engineer, and to return with a draft of a revised ordinance at a future meeting. Town Manager Susan George estimated it would take at least a couple of months before the issue comes back to the council.

"I'm not sure it's worth it to go back and cure the obvious flaws on an interim basis," she said. "We won't have any more events until May, and I think that those are already approved. Nothing is pending."

Ms. Savaree’s review of the ordinance, which dates to 1988, was requested by the council and the town's Bicycle Committee.

"It seems our legal authority here is pretty limited," said Councilman Ron Romines.

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