Closing times for Merced parks on the chopping block. Here’s what City Council’s doing

Merced resident Christina Goins putts while playing disc golf at Fahrens Park in Merced on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The park consists of a 21 hole disc golf.
Merced resident Christina Goins putts while playing disc golf at Fahrens Park in Merced on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The park consists of a 21 hole disc golf.

It’s only a difference of two hours. But an ongoing debate on Merced’s public parks hours continued to split the City Council over winter season closing times.

The Merced City Council and community members on Monday discussed the merits of changing the current public parks daily closing hours of 11 p.m. to 5 a.m..

The proposal debated Monday would shift park closing times from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. between March 1 and Oct. 31. The rest of the year would see the parks close from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Exceptions to the rule would include city-sponsored events, annual permit holders of parks with stadium-style lighting, and pedestrian and bike paths when they are used for walking, jogging, running or bicycling.

Anyone violating the ordinance would be subject to a misdemeanor.

Calls for earlier closing times gained traction with the City Council after a string of recent shootings and stabbings at Merced parks.

Closing the park earlier through an ordinance would give law enforcement the tools to arrest and recommend charges against trespassers.

Ongoing concerns about homeless encampments in public parks also fueled calls to root out disruptive activity in the parks.

Responding to claims of “nothing good happens after dark,” opponents were against the idea of earlier closing times mostly because citizens, they said, should have the right to participate in activities on public parks specifically created for recreation.

Some residents use the parks after dark, opponents said, because they work during the day, or they want to participate in late-night but safe activities such as stargazing and extended picnics.

Homeless advocates testified Monday the city shouldn’t close parks earlier and push out homeless residents without first providing for basic shelter and services.

But all members of the City Council agreed parks needed to be closed earlier. They also agreed on the new proposed hours for the summer months.

But some were concerned the ordinance didn’t account for all structures and activities in the parks..

Councilmembers Matt Serratto and Anthony Martinez brought up questions about what constitutes “stadium-style” lighting, and if lighted basketball courts and skate parks that are often used at night would be exempt.

Councilmembers were split on when parks should close during the winter months, when the sun sets much earlier.

Councilmembers Kevin Blake, Fernando Echevarria and Serratto were in favor of an earlier 7 p.m. winter closing time. Councilmember Jill McLeod, Martinez and Mayor Mike Murphy supported a later 9 p.m. closing time.

Councilmember Delray Shelton voted for an 8 p.m. closing time, but said if he had to choose between the other options he would support 7 p.m.

The City Council ultimately, with a split vote, decided to pass a first read of the ordinance with a 7 p.m. winter park closing time.

“Obviously this is important to everyone,” City Manager Steve Carrigan said, noting the City Council plans to revisit the ordinance in six months and a year. “We will watch this very closely and work with the community and residents on both sides of this issue.”

A final second read of the ordinance is expected to be discussed at the Nov. 18 council meeting.

Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.