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Frogs, turtles no longer part of Bel Air July 4 events

The frog-jumping competition will no longer be part of the Town of Bel Air's July 4th activities.
The frog-jumping competition will no longer be part of the Town of Bel Air's July 4th activities. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS FILE / Baltimore Sun)

After at least 30 years, the frogs and turtles will no longer be part of the July 4th festivities in the Town of Bel Air.

The frog-jumping contest and turtle derby will be prohibited by new updates to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources regulations. The updates were published in the Maryland Register on April 15 and will go into effect on June 20.

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"The purpose of this action is to provide protection for native amphibians and reptiles from becoming infected with known disease vectors in the course of organized competitions. Emerging infectious viral diseases, such as Ranavirus species, are one of the most important factors contributing to global amphibian declines," according to regulations.

"Of course we will miss these events, which were a big part of our day for so long," Don Stewart, president of the Bel Air Independence Day Committee, said in a statement. "But times change, and we have made many changes over the years. We think these new events will be just as much fun and may even attract more people."

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Stewart was not sure exactly how long the animal races have been going on, but he said they were already in place, on a smaller scale, when he joined the committee 30 years ago.

He said in a phone interview Thursday morning that the celebration grew after the Jaycees "stepped the event up" and "it drew more and more people."

"Thirty years ago, that event got handed over to us. To me, at the time, it certainly seemed like a lot of innocent fun," Stewart said, adding that photos taken of the animal races "are some of the most memorable photos that I have of the events that we have run."

The Department of Natural Resources officials had been hoping Bel Air would cease having the animal races without changes to the regulations, he said.

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"We are the largest event of its kind in the state. They wanted ours to end so they could point to it and say, 'It's over voluntarily,'" Stewart said.

The environmental groups that came in recent years to review the events and educate people about animal care "were providing a service, which we appreciated," Stewart noted. "The environmental groups recognized that we made a considerably safer event."

Nevertheless, "we are compliant" with state decisions and "we don't want to do anything contrary to the regulations," he said.

The new events are a water balloon toss and costume contest, both at Shamrock Park, where the turtle races and frog-jumping events were held.

The water balloon toss, where pairs of contestants attempt to toss a filled balloon back and forth, moving farther apart each time, will begin at 9 a.m. The pair that succeeds in tossing its balloon the farthest without breaking it wins.

After the balloon toss, at 9:30 a.m., there will be a costume contest, including both "patriotic/historical" and "fantasy/creative" categories.

"We're still working on the details of these competitions," Stewart said, ""including how to best use the band shell stage, and how to divide up the competitors into age-divisions and the like. But we're sure that they will be tons of fun for people of all ages, and we're expecting everyone from children to oldsters, pets, group entries and more."

The costume contest "should be visually stunning," and the balloon toss also seeks to bring the community together for the type of event families might do in their backyards, he said.

"Our objective is to live up to what [second U.S. president] John Adams came up with years ago, that [July 4] would be a great national festival," Stewart said. "We are kind of hoping that everyone learns and reads about the replacement activities we are going to have."

Those new events are just part of a day-long celebration in the Town of Bel Air, where the non-profit, all-volunteer Bel Air Independence Day Committee has organized, staged and managed the traditional July 4 celebration since the mid 1980s.

The activities include a flag-raising and flag ceremonies in four locations, the traditional pancake breakfast and family-oriented daytime competitive events, culminating with the annual parade down Main Street in the late afternoon and a fireworks display over Rockfield Park at night.

"We're still doing a lot of planning, but the full day schedule is now pretty much complete," Stewart said. "We encourage everyone to visit our web site or Facebook page and start planning their day in Bel Air on Monday, July 4."

Daytime events take place at Bel Air High School (flag-raising, pancake breakfast), Rockfield Park (horseshoe pitching), Shamrock Park (watermelon eating, water balloon toss, costume contest), Bel Air Elementary School (bicycle rodeo) and the Hays House (tours and historical music).

The day of celebration concludes with a mile-long parade on Main Street, starting at 6 p.m., and a fireworks display over Rockfield Park, starting at approximately 9:30 p.m.

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