Ramsey County still looks to the sky to set hours at its more than 6,500 acres of parkland and trails, with openings and closings tied to sunrise and sunset.
That means park and trail hours change daily. But get caught taking an illicit after-dark walk in the park and the penalty is clear: It's a misdemeanor with up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.
As park usage surges in Minnesota and nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic and residents turn to alternative transportation including walking and biking, Ramsey County leaders are re-examining ordinances that govern parks, looking at everything from hours to smoking to drone usage and the penalties for breaking the rules. Though it's unlikely they'll go as far as their counterparts overseas — where parks more commonly stay open around the clock — officials say the "dawn-to-dusk" rule may no longer make sense.
"I don't think those rules work very well, especially as more people want to access parks," said Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Director Mark McCabe of the current rules, which he noted would forbid an early morning jog, an evening ice fishing excursion or a moonlight cross-county ski. "It doesn't leave much access when the sun is going down early."
Ramsey County's six regional parks are a huge draw, with an estimated 6 million visitors each year. Ensuring that policies align with community needs and promote health and well-being is critical, said Board Chair Toni Carter.
"It is clear that there needs to be some expansion of the hours. We will have the opportunity to hear from community," Carter said. "It does appear we are beyond a time plan where sunrise and sunset mark the beginning and end of our day."
The county is investing in some lighted trails and snow-making capabilities for cross-country skiing, which is driving the conversation around hours. The celestial timekeeping also feels out of step with neighboring communities, McCabe said. Dakota County, for example, sets park hours from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. year-round, according to its website.
The ordinance review in Ramsey County includes potentially rethinking penalties for rule-breakers, in keeping with recent moves by other county departments, including community corrections and libraries, to ease up on consequences for low-level infractions, McCabe said.
Currently, a misdemeanor citation is the only tool at law enforcement's disposal for parks violations. During 2019 and 2020, 166 citations were issued for infractions, most of which were parking violations. There's discussion about instead using an administrative fine or petty misdemeanor charge for minor infractions by first-time offenders, McCabe said.
The county has held community meetings about the potential changes and more than 1,500 people have filled out an online survey. The idea of changing parks hours has sparked strong responses, with some raising concerns that longer hours could lead to homeless encampments. Handmade signs lamenting the possible ordinance changes have even been posted at some parks.
"Any person hanging out in a park late at night is up to no good," one survey respondent wrote, according to responses compiled by the county.
"Extending hours later will only invite crime," another wrote.
McCabe said the county prohibits any kind of overnight stays or camping at parks, and that will not change.
County Commissioner Nicole Frethem, who represents the northern suburbs, said she's received more than 100 e-mails about possible parks ordinance changes. "There has been a lot of misperceptions about what is being proposed," she said. "We are listening and documenting every piece of information we receive. There will be continued opportunities for the public to provide feedback."
Staff are compiling survey responses and will present findings to the board on Nov. 2.
In her research on parks hours in other communities, Frethem said she's come across cities in other countries, including Paris, where some parks are open 24 hours. That likely wouldn't be feasible in Ramsey County, she said, but more structured hours could be a smart change.
"I want to reduce confusion as much as possible while providing more access," she said.