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California and the West

Cities Crack Down on Portable Hoops

Sports: Worried about public safety, officials are urging residents not to leave the items in the streets.


IRVINE — Somehow, the thunk of a basketball on the street has turned ominous, litigious--to the point where some Orange County authorities want to do something about it.

First, parents hammered basketball hoops atop garages, and homeowners associations said no to the unsightliness. Then families turned to basketball setups on wheels, with backboards and nets mounted on poles. And now the portable setups are under fire.

At least three cities in Orange County--and a handful nationwide--have looked at ways to restrict portable hoops, including keeping them off the streets after dark when drivers can't easily see them.

A Laguna Hills homeowners association is appealing a Superior Court decision that limits its authority to regulate basketball hoops. Irvine officials have mapped the locations of homeowners who don't put away their portable hoops, in an effort to gauge the problem.

Some parents are left to wonder how life got to the point where a pickup game of hoops has metamorphosed into an evil of suburban life, needing city authorities and regulators.

"They want kids to not be in trouble," said Cathlyn Traughber, 40, whose three sons play basketball on a portable unit in front of their Irvine home, "but take every opportunity away for kids to have fun. . . . It's like, 'Who is it bothering?' "

City leaders don't want to be killjoys, said Cindy Greengold, a councilwoman in Laguna Hills, who is studying the issue of portable hoops. Rather, she said, they are worried about youths who are focusing on the basket and ignoring oncoming cars.

"I'm not out there trying to be city Gestapo, trying to bust kids for playing in the streets," said Greengold, who looked into the issue after receiving a complaint. "But we don't want to have people injured."

In a subtle way, portable hoops are the latest manifestation of a changing way of life. Families are so transitory that they buy fold-up play units that pack up in a jiffy. Homeowners who used to chat over the backyard fence now call on associations or city hall to go after neighbors whom they don't know. Homeowners associations, along with city governments, are so worried about lawsuits that their reach now extends into whether toys are left out overnight.

In an effort to keep neighborhoods safe, politicians and association officials can go too far, said Ronald E. Hughes, chairman of Cal State Fullerton's sociology department.

"I think it tells us we are becoming more insensitive to the needs of children [because of] the bothersomeness of possibly being sued, or the concern of trouble as a result of someone getting hurt," Hughes said.

The threat of getting sued looms so large that one Orange County homeowners association struck first.

In 1992, Benjamin and Marcia Milchiker put a basketball hoop over their garage for their three sons in Laguna Hills. The Nellie Gail Ranch Owners Assn. asked the Milchikers to remove the hoop, which violates the homeowners association's rules. The Milchikers declined, and the association filed suit.

"It's probably . . . an aesthetic issue, to be absolutely truthful," said C.J. Klug, Nellie Gail Ranch's general manager.

The family then removed the garage hoop and got a portable one. A neighbor complained, and the matter ended up in court again. In March 1996, a Superior Court judge ruled that the Milchikers could keep their hoop, and ordered the association to pay the family $31,000 in legal fees. The association is planning to appeal the decision.

Klug said he does not know how much the association has spent in the legal battle against the Milchikers, who did not return calls for comment. But because the association has no authority to fine residents, its only recourse is to sue when mediation attempts fail, he said.

Nationwide, a handful of cities and homeowners associations are contemplating what to do about portable hoops as the units become more popular, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization for condominium and homeowners associations. The setups can weigh more than 400 pounds and range in price from about $200 to $400.

Last month, in the Northern California city of Rocklin, the City Council voted to approve an ordinance that, in effect, requires residents to keep portable basketball units off streets and sidewalks at night. Code enforcement officers will issue warnings and notices for initial violations; repeat offenders are subject to fines of up to $100, said City Manager Carlos Urrutia.

In Orange County, the La Habra City Council considered a similar ordinance two years ago. Instead, the city says it relies on code enforcement officials to warn residents about the ban on leaving sports equipment and other property in the public right of way.

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