Hampstead panel set to let billiard law die


Shortly after the Hampstead Town Council convenes tonight, members expect to observe 15 minutes of silence for a dying ordinance.

There seems to be no more need to regulate billiard parlors, shooting galleries, duckpin alleys and other such amusements in this town of 4,600. Absent any protest at the 7:15 p.m. abbreviated public hearing - 30 minutes is the usual time allotted - the law will be dropped from the town code.

"Even with a shortened time, I think we will be sitting around staring at each other," said Ken Decker, town manager.

Nearly 100 years ago, Hampstead leaders felt threatened and tried to outlaw pool. They got as far as licensing billiards and other popular games with a law that has stayed on the books since 1908.

The town has been reviewing its code, and the billiards law took up several pages in the cumbersome volume. Good housekeeping demanded that it go.

"Government is good at passing laws but not necessarily at repealing them," said Decker. "At this point, we don't perceive a need for this legislation to stay on the books."

Today's planning and zoning process efficiently addresses new business and conditional uses. Still, Decker added, "we stand ready if shooting galleries make a comeback."

But, 92 years ago, Hampstead, a town for barely 20 years, feared an explosion in the number of pool halls and an assault on the small town's character; municipal leaders legislated to keep such businesses in check.

"The council was probably concerned about community reaction to these businesses and felt it was important to do something," said Decker.

Hampstead's location on the stagecoach line between Baltimore and Carlisle, Pa., made it a popular stopover. It also was the gathering point for the farm community.

"In '08, the perception of a billiard hall where unsavory characters hung out was that it had to be regulated, " said Decker. "With body-piercing and tattoo businesses, we certainly have the '90s version of what a billiard parlor was in 1908."

So, licenses were required and came only with the mayor's approval. Owners paid an annual $5 fee "for each and every such billiard, pool or bagatelle table or ten-pin alley, duckpin alley or shooting gallery," according to town code. Amusement devices such as slot machines, pinball machines "and all other such devices other than jukeboxes" - wording added once electricity became available - were included in the ordinance.

"They wanted the same things we want today: development congruent with small-town character and values," said Decker.

Failure to obtain a license resulted in a $25 fine, a princely sum at the turn of the last century. Police checked the age of patrons, limited hours of operation and monitored "the general conduct of billiard and pool establishments."

The businesses had to display their licenses prominently and could not transfer the privilege to another location. Pool halls had to close from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. Children age 16 and younger could not be on the premises, unless accompanied by an adult, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages was strictly prohibited.

Violations, which were considered municipal infractions carrying a $25 fine, could result in license forfeiture.

As far as Decker can determine, pool halls and shooting galleries did not proliferate and were never a major revenue source for the town.

"Sometimes, it is just time for a regulation to go," he said. "Let us not make more of town government than there has to be."

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