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As portable hoops flourish, suburban towns cry foul

A street lined with portable basketball hoops helped sell Christina Jones on a home in Sykesville.

"I thought, 'Great, lots of kids,'" said Jones, who after moving in last year stationed her family's hoop along the curb in front of their house. She added: "There is a magnet effect to these things that brings everybody out in the evening. You actually get to see your neighbors."

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Basketball hoops hovering over subdivision roads may be part of the suburban landscape, and they may bring recreational and social benefits to a community. But in towns from New Jersey to California they are increasingly the source of complaints.

In Sykesville, they might soon be banned from the streets.

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Officials in the Carroll County town, where one street alone has 19 portable hoops, say the contraptions damage municipal trash trucks and snowplows. They say that errant basketballs dent parked cars and break side mirrors, and that pick-up games block traffic.

But, most of all, they worry that if something isn't done, somebody's going to get hurt.

"We are concerned for the safety and welfare of our children," said Sykesville police Chief John R. Williams Jr. "Streets are designed for vehicular traffic, not basketball games."

After fielding complaints for the past couple of years, Williams is asking the Town Council to pass an ordinance that would prohibit the basketball hoops from the public rights of way along streets and roads.

"I am probably going to be the Grinch here and ban the hoops, but the role of leadership often means making an unpopular decision for the betterment of the community," he said.

No legislation has been introduced, but Williams' idea has support.

"The ordinance is going to happen, and it's going to help," said Councilwoman Jeannie Nichols. "Instead of telling children to get out of the street when a car comes, the better policy is to say that it is a danger to do what you are doing."

Nichols, chairwoman of the council's parks and recreation committee, said that if a ban is enacted, the town will probably build basketball courts in at least four municipal parks to give children a safer area to play.

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An ordinance in Sykesville would probably be modeled on one adopted four months ago in Paulsboro, N.J., which enacted a ban on "all sports equipment, whether permanent or mobile, in the public rights-of way." Violators can be fined up to $250.

The borough of about 6,500 near Philadelphia has answered requests from across the country for copies of its ordinance, said Town Clerk Kathy A. VanScoy. The law gives officers the leverage they need to keep children out of the streets, said Lt. Frank Grogan of the Paulsboro Police Department.

"You can't put a lot of faith in that motorist driving down the road," he said. "Once people understood the safety factor, it was hard to argue against the ban."

Communities in Kentucky, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania have also banned the hoops in streets or near streets, according to news accounts.

Modesto, a Northern California city of 200,000, may strengthen its municipal code on outdoor sports equipment. Rafael Rodriguez, code enforcement officer, has responded to nearly 200 complaints about basketball hoops this summer.

"The city has a hazard it has to eliminate. There used to be one hoop for a neighborhood, and now everybody can afford one," he said.

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In Carroll County, Taneytown is also considering a ban on basketball equipment. Complaints increased once schools closed for summer.

"One street had nets at opposite sides of the road and they were playing full court across the street," said Taneytown Police Chief William E. Tyler. "When they're playing, kids really are preoccupied. We'd rather have to move a basketball hoop away from the street than to show up at an accident scene."

James P. Peck, director of research for the Maryland Municipal League, said he is not surprised that communities are considering bans, but is not aware of any towns in the state that have enacted those measures.

Years ago, hoops were more often installed over garage doors or near driveways. But newer, portable versions can be wheeled to the end of a sloped driveway, where the street can be used for a court. Players usually add weights to keep the hoop in place.

On several lanes in Sykesville, as many as four consecutive homes have hoops hanging over the street. At one intersection, children have painted a court. A running tally kept by Town Manager Matthew Candland shows at least 91 hoops are hanging over Sykesville streets.

"They are proliferating on every street," said Nichols, the councilwoman, whose block of 10 homes has five hoops.

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"Some of these things go six feet out into the roadway," Candland said. "It is not fair to motorists or to kids. They are a hazard to trash trucks, snowplows, even UPS is complaining."

RoseAnn Fischer, who lives on a block of 10 homes and three hoops, supports the proposed ban.

"I come down the block, and kids keep right on playing," she said. "You have to wait for them to finish before you can pass."

Others are against the proposal. They say older children can watch out for themselves, and the younger ones are safe as long as they are supervised.

"Would they rather our children sit on the couch and watch cartoons?" said Tina Fry, mother of a 6-year-old girl. "I feel comfortable with my child playing in her own neighborhood. If you don't like hoops or soccer on your street, then don't move into a suburban neighborhood."

Dan Seledee said the town should concentrate on speeders and leave the children to play.

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"They have to slow traffic here before they even talk about taking hoops out," he said.

Jones, the mother of three who moved to the town a year ago, said the ban will not keep children out of suburban roads. "The town will have to ban kids playing in the streets," she said.

For Darin Ellison, 12, his hoop was a birthday present three years ago. He says he "shoots around every day" at his hoop and those in the neighborhood.

"It's real important for me to play at home," he said. "I don't want to waste energy walking to a hoop in a park."

Looking ahead to the proposal to build more municipal courts, Nichols promises a "well-thought-out, sensible plan with public input that looks at all locations in town."

"I want kids to have a place to play," she said. "We can plan for low-key areas that will be just like people's yards."

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Sun staff writer Sheridan Lyons contributed to this article.


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