The pickleball noise debate has landed in Ottawa. Here's the score
City of Ottawa says it's working on local pickleball location standards
Paul Basi is on the fence about whether to renew his membership with the Manotick Tennis Club.
The 50-year-old recently took up pickleball and loved playing last summer on the club's converted outdoor courts in Centennial Park.
Compared to tennis, "you come away from [the game] playing half-decently and wanting to play more," he said.
But after nearby residents complained about the penetrating sound of players' paddles and hard plastic balls, the City of Ottawa has told the club that outdoor pickleball at the park will no longer be permitted.
The news — shared on the club's website last week — is now trickling down to players like Basi. The alternative venues being offered, including painted lines on arena floors and aging outdoor courts in North Gower, have Basi uncertain about his summer plans.
"Nobody would be excited, [when] you want to be outdoor enjoying the sunshine, [about] being cooped up in an indoor facility," he said.
But with pickleball games having run deep into last summer's nights, residents living near Centennial Park say something had to give.
The park already boasted baseball diamonds and a soccer field — but the more recent sound of pickleball cut through the din, several said.
"It's about 10 times as loud as tennis," said Scott Shannon, whose house is on the street next to the park, adding some neighbours have resorted to wearing noise-cancelling headphones.
Shannon's wife, Saralyn Hodgkin, said "it sucks as a pickleball player" to see the park's outdoor courts spiked, noting that people on the block play the sport too.
"[But] as a community member, I'm really happy to support people to be able to live in their homes without going crazy. That to me is more important than being able to have easy access to pickleball."
'Victims of our own success'
Ottawa is not the first Canadian city faced with balancing the growing popularity of pickleball with the serenity of those off-court.
But the Manotick Tennis Club says it was one of the first Ottawa clubs to convert outdoor tennis courts to pickleball ones — and so it's become the first to butt up against the noise issue to this extent.
The conflict in Manotick also reflects a lack of adequate space for the sport's devotees and a dearth of existing city regulations meant to keep things in harmony, those involved say.
"We were victims of our own success because [interest in pickleball] grew so much," said Javier Ruano Valdez, the club's manager of tennis activities.
When the club subdivided one of Centennial Park's six tennis courts into four pickleball courts in 2018, it wasn't just in response to Florida snowbirds' fervour for the sport but also to boost club membership, Valdez said.
The club, counting only about 450 total members, eyed 600. Since piloting pickleball, that number has grown to 825, with members granted access to both sports, according to the club.
"Everything was good. But then we must respect the neighbours [and], you know, it's very noisy," Valdez said of the feedback he got when retrieving lost balls from people's yards.
"Imagine, Sunday morning, you want to have your coffee on your porch, in your backyard, and you hear the tong-tong-tong. Or you want to have your glass of wine after a long week of work and then you hear the tong-tong-tong," Valdez said.
People like to play doubles, Basi said, which sometimes meant four balls simultaneously flying back and forth among 16 players.
"And intuitively, it's a more social game, so there's probably more noise, more laughter," said Diana Dowthwaite, the pickleball co-ordinator for the Manotick Tennis Club board and the president of the Ottawa Pickleball Association.
Plans for permanent outdoor courts in park nixed
Not everybody minds the sound, though.
Granted, Bobby Strawbridge doesn't live as close to the courts as others, and he understands that some find it intrusive. But he says "the pitter patter of the pickleball" is a welcome sound of summer.
"We sit in the backyard on the gazebo and we understand this is what it's about: people out there enjoying themselves," he said.
The City of Ottawa looked at trying to cushion the clatter, only to rule some options wouldn't fly.
Lower-noise paddles and balls could affect gameplay, while the courts' fences weren't designed to hold sound-absorbing panels or withstand high winds, raising the risk of property damage, the city said in a statement.
The playing hours were reduced, but "it still didn't work," Valdez said.
It was while holding community consultations in early 2022 on its proposal to build permanent pickleball courts elsewhere in Centennial Park — a plan the city approved in principle — that the club first heard "a chorus of concern from neighbours," said Lori Gadzala, a longtime member of the club's board.
"This will greatly affect my enjoyment of my garden," one resident said according to a summary of consultation results.
A survey that received 72 responses showed 53 per cent supported or largely supported the expansion plan, but 38 per cent said the noise was a serious concern. When asked how the situation could be improved, 21 per cent called for the project to be moved somewhere else in Manotick.
The club is now looking at other locations.
"I think in the end it ended up hurting what we currently have," Basi said.
Alternate sites for 2023 offered
In its statement, the city said the decision to not continue allowing the club to offer outdoor pickleball at Centennial Park was based on the intensity of the noise and the courts' use for up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
In addition to 19 email complaints, city staff also received more than 100 phone calls and heard comments opposing pickleball at six community meetings.
Rideau-Jock Coun. David Brown first heard about the racket while doorknocking in Manotick during the 2022 election and said the four pickeball courts at the park will be reconverted to one tennis court.
To help make up the shortfall, the city has offered to paint lines in some arenas, including one right by the park.
While the club says the times may not be as flexible, Brown said having five to six courts inside will actually increase accessibility to the sport.
The city is also considering converting tennis courts at Alfred Taylor Park in North Gower, though they're near the end of their lives and the site has yet to be assessed.
"It's not going to be at the same quality as the Manotick courts," Dowthwaite said. "Within the last couple of years, we've sunk quite a bit of money into bring them up to a good quality."
The temporary fixes for 2023 aren't going to please everybody, Brown conceded, but he said he had "every confidence" they'd find a permanent outdoor location and an agreement to both protect pickleball at the Manotick Tennis Club and grow its membership.
"In fact," Brown stated in an email to constituents, "no other sports group in Ottawa has had the offer of multiple arena surfaces to help a membership or fee-based organization mitigate the impacts of a change such as this."
Work on local standards incoming
Valdez and Dowthwaite say the episode shows the city needs to begin formally regulating the location of outdoor pickleball locations.
"We want to make sure that in the future we adequately address [concerns] right at the outset because we don't want to find ourselves in the situation that the Manotick Tennis Cub and others are going to find themselves in," he said.
The city said work will begin this year on developing policies and standards, including required setbacks between courts and nearby homes.
Gadzala said people living near the park have offered to help raise money for a permanent outdoor location.
"I'm kind of hoping that instead of the controversial and adversarial approach that members and pickleballers have had in other cities, we can sort of be the model to work together to find appropriate playing locations that everybody can get behind," she said.