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Pickleball players can't wait to play outside but Coun. O'Connor has questions

Council to vote on accepting a staff report recommending the reopening of the outdoor pickleball courts in Virgil on June 17
John Hindle is the president of the NOTL Pickleball Club.

As president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Pickleball Club, John Hindle will be watching tonight’s Committee of the Whole Meeting, eagerly awaiting council’s vote on item 8.2.

That’s the item referring to report number OPS-24-015 on the reopening of the outdoor pickleball courts at the Virgil sports park. After a two-year ban on the use of the facility that opened in 2019 expires on June 15, town staff are recommending the courts be open again with some modifications to the previous schedule and the addition of sound barriers to the perimeter facing nearby condominium complex Lambert’s Walk.  

If approved, the courts could open on June 17. 

“The Town did an excellent job of trying to work with the target audience, keeping in mind the history,” Hindle told The Local recently. “We’ve had a wonderful, cooperative relationship with the Town, and I think that’s true with all of the clubs and community organizations in town, that they work with them cooperatively.”

It was a noise complaint filed by a nearby resident of Lambert’s Walk in 2022 that led to a court case and eventually a ruling that the noise from pickleball paddles hitting the hard plastic balls violated NOTL’s noise by-law. The Provincial court’s decision was to close down the outdoor facility for a period of two years. 

In the interim, a modification was made to the Town’s noise by-law that provides an exemption to the decibel level when related to sports activity. As Coun. Erwin Wiens told The Local last week, that exemption is common in municipalities across the province and probably should have been added to the by-law long ago. 

The original complainant, Oana Scafesi, declined via email to The Local when asked to comment on the matter.

Hindle says he was caught-off guard by the Provincial court decision. Almost immediately after  justice of the peace Mary Shelly presented her decision, the club and the Town began informally discussing the future of the outdoor courts. 

But discussions began in earnest just over a month ago.

“Once the expiry of the ban was getting closer,” explained Hindle, “our board started approaching the town to sit down and start thinking about what was going to happen this summer.”

Hindle and the club are happy with the solutions in place. The sound barriers are expected to lower the noise by 10 to 15 decibels, and the club has offered to help pay for their installation as the Town awaits word on a Trillium Grant application. 

In addition, hours of operation for the outdoor courts will be reduced, and the club has purchased some noise-deadening paddles for use as a pilot project. 

“These are municipal courts,” said Hindle. “We have a responsibility to the residents. The reduced hours are a concession to the constant clack-clack-clack of pickleball. The club is being as flexible as possible to find a compromise.”

Hindle himself lived for three years in the same nearby complex where the original complainant resides. In fact, at one time he was the vice president of the complex’s condominium board. 

“I was in building C, which was just a little bit further toward the entrance of the park,” said Hindle, who enjoyed walking from his home to the courts to play. “I had a neighbour whose unit backed onto the park and he loved the sound, he loved hearing people laughing and having fun.”

Wiens is also very happy about the solution from a council perspective and expects the report to be accepted at tonight’s meeting. His colleague Sandra O’Connor says though she is not opposed to the plan, she does have reservations about the way it is unfolding.

As she was going through the staff report in Tuesday’s agenda, she says her first question was whether the residents who live adjacent to the Virgil sports park pickleball courts have been approached by the town to explain what they are recommending, and if not, why haven’t they been told.

“I don’t see anywhere in the report that addresses that,” she says. “I don’t see anywhere that they have advised residents in the area around the pickleball courts. Why wouldn’t they do that first? That’s my biggest concern.”

She also has some questions about the issue of noise mitigation, which she plans to ask about tonight, such as whether the sound panels recommended are reflective or absorbing, to better understand how effective they can be. Are they going to be high enough, and why aren’t they on four sides of the court, she asks. Also, why don’t they go the whole length of those sides, surrounding the entire court?

“I also plan to ask about planting trees for further noise mitigation,” she says.

As well, she has questions about the hours the town has decided the courts will be open. The report recommends hours of use to be from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. Monday to Friday; 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. “Why are the courts open until 10 during the week and to 8:30 on weekends? It should be 8:30 all week.”

O’Connor told The Local she also plans to do more research about how pickleball noise has been handled in other municipalities, and whether similar mitigation efforts have been effective.

The fastest-growing sport in North America has faced similar contentious noise discussions in municipalities across Canada and the United States. When tennis courts were converted for pickleball at Castle Hill Park near Kearney Lake Road in Halifax, Nova Scotia, nearby condominium residents complained to the city about the noise. 

In Victoria, BC’s James Bay neighbourhood, pickleballers were banned from playing in a park  near the province's legislature because of the noise and asked to play instead on courts located in the city's downtown core.

“Pickleball noise is a big issue,” says O’Connor. “We have to be very careful about what we’re doing.”

The club members have been enjoying playing the sport at the NOTL Community Centre, Central Community Centre, and recently inside a temporary dome at John N. Allan Park in Niagara Falls, getting to play outdoors again is a chance to get back to pickleball’s roots. 

“It evolved in Florida and Arizona, where they have 365 days of potentially sunny weather,” he says. “Historically, it was an outdoor sport. From a municipal perspective, most other nearby areas are five years behind putting in outdoor courts, but they are doing it. Opening these courts cuts out the need for our members to travel to other cities to play.”

He adds that it was the outdoor courts that helped grow the sport in NOTL, to the point where the local club now has almost 700 members. 

Hindle admits he will be holding his breath waiting for tonight’s vote, but he doesn’t plan on attending the meeting because of the delicate balance between the needs of the club members and the nearby residents. 

But he feels the recommendations in the report represent a workable solution for both sides. 

“We’re doing our due diligence to protect the community nearest to the courts,” insists Hindle. “The sound barriers, the exploration of the paddles, the modification of the times, all of those are our olive branches. We don’t want to be hard-nosed about this, we are willing to work with them.”

With files from Penny Coles

Mike Balsom

About the Author: Mike Balsom

With a background in radio and television, Mike Balsom has been covering news and events across the Niagara Region for more than 35 years
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