Ramsey County will consider easing rules for its 6,500 acres of parkland, including dramatically expanding hours and decriminalizing some minor infractions.
Under a proposal introduced at Tuesday's County Board meeting, parks would be open 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. year-round and those hours would not apply to people who, "without delay, are traveling on regional trails."
The current hours are based on sunrise and sunset, and provide no exception for trail users and bike commuters.
People caught breaking the rules could be issued an administrative or misdemeanor citation. Currently, the rules allow only for a misdemeanor citation, which carries up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.
County Parks and Recreation Director Mark McCabe said the punishment seems out of line with some minor offenses.
"Whether it's a parking violation … or if you walked on a designated cross-country ski trail instead of skiing on it, you could be cited for that and that would be an automatic misdemeanor," he said. "That's on your criminal record and carries a hefty fine."
An administrative citation seems more equitable and in line with those minor offenses, he said.
The county prohibits overnight stays or camping at parks, and that will not change.
The County Board will host a public hearing on the proposed rule changes Feb. 8 and could take a final vote later that month.
This would be the first major change to park rules since 2007 — motivated by surging park visits during the COVID-19 pandemic, evolving technology and use patterns, and county leaders' desire to support walking, biking and other forms of alternative transportation.
Officials said the "dawn-to-dusk" rule no longer makes sense, as residents want the opportunity to take an early-morning stroll before work or a moonlight cross-country ski. Many neighboring parks systems already use set times to avoid confusion for users.
Ramsey County is also investing in some lighted trails and snow-making capabilities for cross-country skiing, which is, in part, motivating the conversation around hours.
The proposed rules would also allow for some new technology, including electric bicycles and drones in designated areas, McCabe said.
"It's trying to maintain that balance of peacefulness in nature and allow for different technologies now being used for recreation," he said.
Ramsey County's six regional parks attract an estimated 6 million visitors each year. County leaders, who've made similar changes to penalties enforced by the community corrections and library departments, say park policies should align with evolving community needs and promote health and well-being.
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 elicited strong responses, with many expressing concerns about crime. A majority of respondents were interested in extending hours but rejected the idea of leaving parks open around the clock, McCabe said.
"We heard a lot of, 'Hey, wildlife doesn't need to be disturbed 24 hours a day,' and 'Let's let land recover. Let's not have people on it at all hours,'" he said.