Scoreboard puts town in a pickle

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The question of whether to allow the Little League to generate much-needed revenue by selling advertising at a Community Park field remained unresolved Monday night.

Selectboard members continued to express ambivalence about the Little League’s plans, which would include banner advertising on the outfield fences during the season and a new electronic scoreboard that touts Coca-Cola.

Little League officials received an offer from the soft drink giant last year to fund a new electronic scoreboard at the field. Mike Healey, a member of the Williston Little League Board of Directors, previously had estimated the price of the scoreboard at $10,000, but revised the figure downward to $5,000 at Monday’s meeting. In return for purchasing the scoreboard, Coca-Cola would have a small ad spaced on the board.

But the town’s zoning regulations do not allow for billboard or off-premises advertising signs. In addition, the number of signs currently in place at the Community Park field already exceeds the limit allowed in the village zoning district.

In a May letter denying the application for advertising on the scoreboard, Williston zoning administrator D.K. Johnston noted the question had come up previously when the manual scoreboard at the field was installed. The zoning administrator at the time required commercial messages on the top of the scoreboard to be painted out, Johnston said.

In response, the Little League asked the Selectboard to approve an amendment to the zoning ordinance that allows advertising at the field. The Planning Commission has voiced opposition to the amendment. The Recreation Committee previously expressed support for an electronic scoreboard, but not for advertising on a scoreboard.

Selectboard member Andy Mikell supported the idea of an amendment, saying the Little League’s plan seemed harmless and discreet to him. He said advertising seemed like a natural way to support the program, particularly without raising municipal taxes.

Mikell, who said he has frequently attended youth baseball games over the years, asserted that electronic scoreboards with advertising are commonplace at Little League fields in other municipalities.

However, Chairwoman Ginny Lyons expressed disappointment that the proposed advertiser on the scoreboard was a global soft-drink giant. She said she did not like the idea of a business that produced “empty calories and junk food” getting a prominent spot for advertising at a youth athletic facility.

“The sponsor is important,” Lyons said. “If it was a local business, like a health and fitness club, or another type of business, then I would be more enthusiastic.”

Selectboard member Ted Kenney pointed out that Coca-Cola was sold at local businesses and that the advertising would therefore benefiting them, too. Kenney also voiced concern about the Selectboard overstepping its bounds to control the identity of the advertiser.

Still, one proposal broached at Monday’s meeting was approving a zoning amendment that allows advertising at the field, while concurrently devising an administrative way to manage the advertising to ensure it fits certain standards.

The Selectboard ultimately directed the Planning Commission to draft a zoning ordinance amendment that allows advertising at the field. The board will review the drafted amendment and its other options at a future meeting.