Leslie and Tom Fraley are fond of living next to Kiwanis-Wallas Park in western Ellicott City, but they say they have grown irritated with the advertising signs that hang from the ball field's fences.
"They're not very attractive to look at. They're kind of like big billboards," Leslie Fraley said, adding that the signs "flap around on windy days" and make too much noise.
That's why the Fraleys oppose a County Council bill that would legalize the signs, which are used to raise money for two private recreational sports leagues.
However, the Fraleys and one other opponent were outnumbered by the nearly 200 young baseball and soccer players and their parents who turned out in support of the measure at a public hearing Tuesday.
For years, signs have been hung at the park by the Howard County Youth Program. But after a complaint by the Fraleys, a county review of regulations found that the practice violates sign laws that restrict advertising to the businesses on which the sign is located, and prohibit banners except for up to 14 days before a business opening and for 21 days for an entertainment event. The Soccer Association of Columbia also uses signs at its eight-field complex on Centennial Road.
The bill, sponsored by council chairman Courtney Watson and co-sponsored by three other members and County Executive Ken Ulman, would create an exemption to allow the banners at athletic fields from March to December. Revenue from the signs provides up to $200,000 a year for the two leagues, which are self-supporting and serve more than 12,000 children, said Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.
Several proponents of the bill who testified at the hearing said the ad revenue is vital to support the league's programs, which provide an important outlet for county youth.
"On any weekend from March through November, I know where these children are - and they're not in a mall or on a parking lot," said Aaron Schwartz, director of softball for HCYP. More than 500 children play softball, he said, and fees have not been raised in three years - thanks in part to income from the banners.
Local business owners are eager to advertise, partly as a way to help the league, said Tim Arnett, HCYP's scholarship chairman.
"We never had to turn anyone down because we didn't have the funds," Arnett said.
Sixteen-year-old Tony Fellona began playing in the league at age 6, and started umpiring at 13.
"It has become more than a baseball field for me," the Marriotts Ridge High student said. "It has become a second home."
The money generated by the advertising banners pays for awards, safety equipment, field maintenance and scholarships for children whose families can't afford the fees.
But Tom Fraley said that when his family moved to their Frederick Road home 22 years ago, there were no signs or field lights at the park.
"You give them an inch and they take two miles," he said about the sports groups.
And though Leslie Fraley applauded the programs, adding that her now-grown children participated in years past, she said that the bill should restrict the use of the signs.
"It needs more guidelines," she said. "How many signs? What size? What materials? Can they be only on fences or on buildings? Can there be lights? These are community-sensitive questions."
She suggested the leagues post ads on their Web sites instead. At very least, "the bill needs to be more explicit," she said. Watson said she would consider the suggestions.
The other opponent, Ralph Ballman, said there are too many commercial ads in the world already and suggested that the county give the leagues the money the ads produce.
"Leave our public land uncluttered with commercial advertising," Ballman said. "It's more important for people to take care of their own."
After the hearing, Watson said she would not likely favor the county subsidizing the leagues.
The council is to vote on the bill March 3.
The council began a new feature at the hearing - electronic sign-up for people who want to testify on legislation.
Instead of arriving up to 90 minutes before a 7:30 p.m. hearing to sign a sheet of paper, people can sign up days earlier from home on the council's Web page.
Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, praised the new system during her testimony in support of a bill to create a new county Office of Environmental Sustainability.
"I was able to have dinner with my significant other and relax a little bit after a very stressful day of legal practice and public advocacy" before coming to the George Howard building, she said.