The city is limiting hours for Chestnut Hill's popular pickleball courts due to noise complaints while some neighbors consider a lawsuit.
In response to neighbor’s complaints about the loud whacking noise emanating from the Water Tower Recreation Center’s pickleball courts, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is piloting limited hours for the courts and exploring “exploring” a plan to convert several tennis courts at Awbury Recreation Center in Germantown for pickleball use.
Going forward, the Water Tower pickleball courts will be closed on Sundays, Parks & Rec confirmed to the Local. On weekdays, they’ll only be open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Saturdays, they’ll be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The courts will be locked when not open. The new schedule will be in effect for about three months until June 15 when the city will reassess, said Water Tower Advisory Council president Keith Kunz. The new hours started this past weekend.
The previous hours were 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. This is a more than 30% reduction in total allowable pickleball-playing hours during the week, from 91 hours to 63.
“I know it's not 100 percent for either side, [but] it's definitely a starting point,” Kunz said at the meeting. “We will learn from these three months what we can work on, what we need to improve and what's going to change. I'll continue to work with the city and I'll continue to work with everybody here to keep making things right and figure out a long-term solution.”
Councilmember Cindy Bass said there is “clearly” a demand for more pickleball courts and called Parks & Rec’s decision to reduce hours of play “a compromise in response to, and, in consultation with, the neighbors and pickleball players.”
“We are looking at ways to increase the number of pickleball courts throughout Philadelphia with Parks & Rec,” Bass said. “This would help reduce the use of the current courts.”
The proposal to put new courts in Germantown does not have funding, and the city can not yet say whether new courts there would mean closing the courts at the Water Tower.
Fun for some, a headache for others
Conflict has been growing between pickleball players, who enjoy the fun of smacking the perforated plastic balls across nets with wooden paddles, and nearby neighbors of the Water Tower, who are becoming increasingly aggravated about the loud whacking sound it makes. The pickleball courts are just 14 feet from the property lines on the 8200 block of Ardleigh Street.
Reduced hours is not enough, they say, and some have begun to lay the groundwork for a potential lawsuit against the city for failing to enforce excessive noise laws.
The Water Tower’s courts have become a focal point for the conflict because pickleballers from the Northwest and beyond have increasingly taken to its top-notch facilities, which are public and therefore free to use. Similar courts in nearby Montgomery County, pickleballers told the Local, are either not as good, too far away, or are private facilities that require players to pay a fee.
Players who spoke with the Local were generally supportive of the new hours and see it as a worthy compromise.
“I think most people who play pickleball think that the reduced hours are a good place to start, to see how it works for players and to see if it improves things for the nearby neighbors,” pickleballer Sarah Whitman said. “It will be a good test and we can always adjust. For example, over the summer with the heat, it might be nice to start earlier and have evening hours, but have a long midday break.”
Another pickleballer, Marilyn Paucker, said that she and her fellow pickleball players are “fine” with the hours.
“It's a good compromise for the pickleballers and the neighbors,” she said.
On the other hand, some neighbors, who say they didn’t have a say in setting the new hours, are happy the hours have been decreased, but not content with stopping there. Most still feel they got the raw end of the deal and want the pickleball courts taken down permanently.
“We didn’t agree to the times set now,” resident Sarah Bettien-Ash said. “That’s just something the Parks & Rec decided and they thought was a compromise, but it’s not.”
Neighbors are prepared to go to court
At the Wednesday meeting, one resident who identified herself as Jennifer Dumin threatened a lawsuit against the city, citing excessive noise complaints that violate city laws.
Dumin, who said she works from home, happens to be a lawyer. She said she used a decibel meter to measure the sound of pickleballers and found that it was “four times the legal limit.”
“Every single person that's playing pickleball is violating the Philadelphia noise ordinance,” she said. “I'm not going to be able to work from home given this situation, so I'm prepared to immediately file a lawsuit to have the city suspend pickleball until there is a way to reduce the noise…I'll do what I have to do in order to be able to have my livelihood. I have to be able to work from home.”
Dumin declined to talk on the record about the potential lawsuit, but other neighbors told the Local that they agree with the idea of pursuing legal action against the city if necessary. For some, it’s already necessary.
“It’s a last resort, but we’re prepared for it,” neighbor Joe O’Donnell said of taking the litigious route. “It’s an embarrassment that we can’t resolve this amongst ourselves. I’m generally opposed to going to court, but if you gotta do it, you gotta do it.”
Bettien-Ash said that if the city comes up with a plan to either end pickleball at the Water Tower Recreation Center or greatly curtail the hours to “something minimal,” then the lawsuit likely won’t be filed.
But as of right now, “it’s pretty clear the law is being violated,” she said. “So it’s just a matter of enforcing the law and it's [currently] not getting enforced by the city.”
Marie Cavagnaro is a neighbor who has been more agreeable to the new hours than most, largely because she works in an office during the week and isn’t home as often to hear the noise anyway. She told the Local that Parks & Rec’s reduced pickleball hours were “a really good compromise.” Despite this sentiment, she still thinks the courts should be moved, and is in favor of filing a lawsuit if that doesn’t happen.
“If the city won’t move them, I think [filing a lawsuit] definitely is a way we’d have to go, unfortunately,” she said. “Maybe it won’t come to that. I think when you have no recourse, when nothing changes - I think that’s when you go that route.”
Whitman, one of the pickleballers, said that she hoped the community “could continue to work on adjusting things and finding compromises, rather than resort to legal measures.
“This seems like something that could be worked out with reasonable members of both groups,” she added.
Regarding the potential lawsuit, Bass said she “understood” and “empathized” with neighbors’ concerns.
A lawsuit stemming from excessive pickleball noise wouldn’t be unprecedented. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that people have successfully claimed in dozens of legal proceedings that sound emitted from pickleball matches can violate local municipal codes or rules set by homeowners’ associations or condominium associations.
Sound barriers are off the table, neighbors say
Complicating the situation in Chestnut Hill, however, is the neighbors’ lack of interest in investing in Acoustifence, a sound dampening material that attaches to the existing cyclone fence. Neighbors met Sunday and overwhelmingly voted against making the $28,000 investment out of fear it wouldn’t completely solve the problem.
“We’re 100 percent opposed to the community spending any money on sound barriers that aren’t going to work,” O’Donnell said. “If the pickleball players want to raise money for sound barriers, that’s fine.”
Cavagnaro dismissed the idea of Acoustifence as a “band-aid.”
“It could be a band-aid but why spend all that money? What we really want is to have [the city] move [the pickleball courts],” she said. “We don’t want them to waste their money on something like that.”
Kunz said that the company responsible for installing Acoustifence came to the Water Tower and conducted a decibel meter test, which concluded that the material would reduce the sound of people playing pickleball by about 50%. The chief concern, though, is that the Acoustifence wouldn’t be able to prevent sound from going over the courts’ 12-foot-high fence.
“Where that fence ends,” Kunz said, “you're still going to hear the noise on an angle going over it.”
Some neighbors, like O’Donnell, say they’d be OK with pickleballers playing with special sound dampening balls.
“If there’s no noise then it's no problem,” he said.
Pickleballers may be a bit lukewarm to the idea of using quieter balls, but some do say they’d use them if that’s what it would take to broker an agreement.
“I tried them,” pickleballer Debbie Brink said of the quiet balls. “We used them a couple times. It’s a whole different game. If [using quiet balls] were required, I’d probably do it.”
Paucker also said she’d be open to using the quieter balls.
“I just got some of the quiet balls and they are quiet, but it’s not the same,” she said. “I’m not saying we wouldn't use them, but it changes the whole game. The ball doesn’t bounce like a pickleball does, and when you hit it, it doesn’t do the same things. It is quiet though.”
The best solution is an expensive one
The one thing that pickleballers and residents seem to agree on is that the ideal solution would be to find a nearby location for new pickleball courts.
And Awbury, which has tennis courts, seems a perfect spot, they say,
“They’d need to be resurfaced,” Kunz said of the courts, “but it would be a perfect [fit] because there are lights, off-street parking and it’s far away from neighbors.”
“There’s no funding for it,” Kunz said.
It cost the city $95,000 to transition three of the Water Tower Recreation Center’s tennis courts into six pickleball courts in 2016.
Kunz also said the Allens Lane Art Center was discussed as a potential location for new pickleball courts, but it was ruled out for being too close to homes.
“By no means is this over,” he said, “but we do want to make both sides happy.”