Doing a few sit-ups and push-ups in Santa Monica turned James Birch into a scofflaw -- and cost him $158 to boot.
Birch was cited as part of a recent crackdown on fitness enthusiasts who were exercising in the grassy medians along 4th Street near tony Adelaide Drive.
In response to homeowners' complaints, Santa Monica police two months ago started warning those who exercised on the medians that they were violating a 1970 city ordinance. Residents had griped that the affluent neighborhood had been overrun by groups of people who sometimes showed up with exercise benches, balls and boom boxes -- creating a sort of outdoor Gold's Gym.
"The median has turned into a de facto park," said Jim Sweeney, an area resident who along with neighbors complained to City Hall about 18 months ago.
For those who enjoy huffing and puffing in the great outdoors, few venues top Adelaide, at Santa Monica's northern border near the ocean.
Droves of power walkers and joggers take to the steep wooden or concrete stairs that descend to Santa Monica Canyon, reveling in the superb canyon and ocean views. Nearby, the grassy medians along 4th Street are viewed as ideal al fresco gyms for personal trainers and clients wanting to buff up as ocean breezes caress their sweaty biceps.
Even the stair climbers have been known to lay mats on the sidewalks in front of multimillion-dollar Adelaide houses and do sets of ab crunches. Residents report that joggers also discard water bottles, urinate on people's plants, occasionally scrawl graffiti and mill about in the narrow, curvy street, creating a hazard for themselves and drivers.
In response, the Santa Monica Police Department stationed park rangers in the area to issue warnings and, occasionally, citations. (Jogging and walking in medians are permitted under the ordinance.)
The city also sent 1,200 questionnaires to gauge the level of concern about what residents say has been an uptick in median exercisers and stair users. About 200 residents have responded. At a public meeting this evening at the main Santa Monica Public Library on Santa Monica Boulevard at 6th Street, city officials will hear from residents who favor the ban and those who contend that police must have better things to do.
"We really wanted the general public to speak . . . so we can understand the various perspectives," said Lee Swain, the city's public works director.
Birch, 62, an online music company executive who lives in Santa Monica Canyon, said he has been exercising in the medians for 18 years.
"I was more than a little outraged that as a taxpayer I was no longer able to use public property for exercising," he said. Aware of the enforcement push, Birch had a camera crew with him when he was cited and put into the back of a squad car, where he talked about what he perceives as "a misallocation of police resources." His court date is Nov. 13.
Big, noisy classes that show up at dawn are one thing, he said. "But as a single exercise enthusiast, . . . for me not to be able to do 15 minutes of sit-ups and push-ups is ridiculous," he said.
Exercise trainers have circulated a petition to try to regain the use of the medians.
The City Council is expected to take up the issue Nov. 11, and the city plans a follow-up public meeting in early January to report on possible solutions.
Joe Folender of Venice, fresh from climbing the wooden stairs, which are technically in Los Angeles, said police should focus on stopping drug dealing across from the parochial school that his friend's son attends.
"Yet you see the police patrol here where there's no threat," he said. "Maybe someone's contributing to the police benevolent fund."