Oakmont in a pickle over pickleball

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Pickleball is the game with the funny name, played in the space of a badminton court but with the appeal of tennis.

It is America’s fastest-growing sport, with an estimated 100,000 players nationwide, many in active adult communities. But for 4,000-plus residents of Oakmont Village, pickleball also has brought trouble.

Just as it has in retirement communities such as SaddleBrook in Tucson, Ariz., the sport has embroiled residents in a heated controversy over a planned multicourt pickleball facility.

Over the past two years, since pickleball first rolled into Oakmont, the game has attracted more than 120 players. Many fit the usual pickle-player profile: boomers who find the game less physically demanding than tennis and a fun way to stay fit and make friends. Others are elderly athletes like 90-year-old Peter Wells. “I’m playing pickleball the way I used to play tennis when I was a much younger man,” Wells said. “And I love it!”

So, what’s the pickle? It seems that when a player smacks the plastic pickleball, it emits a unique pinging sound. Since the game is fast-paced, with a dozen or more shots exchanged before a point is won, the pinging sound can drive some folks slightly bonkers. There have been complaints from a few residents who live near the tennis court where pickleball is played.

When the Oakmont Pickleball Club assured them that courts dedicated to pickleball would be built in a suitable location, the controversy escalated to involve more residents. A committee was formed, funding for designers and engineer consultants was approved, and – 16 months later – plans and renderings were presented to the community.

The plans called for four tournament-quality pickleball courts in a multi-use sport court – where volleyball and badminton also could be played – plus tiered seating for spectators, picnic tables and attractive landscaping.

“We all got excited when we saw the plans,” said Tom Kendrick, the president of the club. “When built, we could host tournaments with other pickleball clubs and hold our own matches. The club would definitely grow as more folks discover how this fun game keeps you active and healthy. Now, players have to wait on the sidelines for a court. Plus, it would help Oakmont stay competitive with other active-adult communities.”

The only problem was the location. The site chosen for the pickleball sport complex is close to the spacious central pool in Oakmont and within shouting distance of the nearest home. The prospect of turning this non-descript patch of grass into a playground for pickleball players ignited a firestorm of protest. Oakmont may boast of being an active-adult community, but it also cherishes its peace and quiet.

“It would destroy the serenity enjoyed by those who like lounging around the pool,” retired schoolteacher Jeannette Luini said. “It’s so pleasant and quiet. And the courts would obstruct the open-space views of the golf course and the hills of Annadel.”

Linne McAleer’s home currently has a view of the golf course but is 30 yards from the proposed sport complex. When the retired nurse realized how close her back porch would be to the pickleball courts, she became concerned.

“Peaceful serenity is very important to me,” said McAleer, who sings with the Threshold Choir, a group that performs at the bedside of hospice patients. “That’s why I bought this house, because of the quiet surroundings and beautiful views from my porch. What means so much to me would be gone if the courts were built near my home.”

Reacting to McAleer’s concerns, the planners proposed a 10-foot sound barrier. While such an “acoustic fence” might help muffle the noise of pickleball, it has done little to silence critics. “Instead of green open space, we’d be looking at a big wall … simply idiotic,” some said.

Despite the outcry, plans were sent to the Santa Rosa Planning Department, and a building permit was requested. McAleer and other residents responded with letters of opposition, triggering the requirement of a public hearing. City planners also demanded that Oakmont conduct a noise and visual analysis of the project prior to permit approval.

With the pickleball issue back in Oakmont’s court, a blistering debate broke out on social media. Opponents argued that while they may never play the game, the courts should be built somewhere else. Others took issue with the cost, saying it could be as high as $200,000.

Pickleball supporters countered that the money is available and that Oakmont bylaws clearly state that the fundamental goal of the homeowners’ association is to provide recreational amenities for residents. One post noted that we should “enjoy our joyful noise – we have an eternity of silence ahead of us.”

Attempting to defuse the fury, some posted what they consider common-sense options. Oakmont has eight tennis courts that are rarely used in the afternoon, so they proposed turning one of the tennis courts into a permanent pickleball court. This was Santa Rosa’s Finley Park solution to the growing popularity of the game. One of the park’s five tennis courts has been converted to four pickleball courts at a reported cost of $11,000.

But the leaders of Oakmont’s tennis club are staunchly opposed to integrating pickleball with tennis. Last month, at Oakmont’s regularly scheduled board of directors meeting, the pickleball controversy came to a head. The board was to determine whether to approve funding for the required studies. Anita Easland, co-chair of the pickleball committee, explained that the proposed site was selected because it is the only suitable open space left in Oakmont that is level, with ample parking nearby.

The board took only a few minutes to unanimously approve funding for the studies required by the planning department before a public hearing can be scheduled. If a building permit is approved, the board will then address the sensitive issue of construction costs. To date, about $50,000 has been spent on project development.

Opponents continue to circulate a petition, and city planners could deny the permit, so the fate of a permanent home for pickleball in Oakmont Village remains uncertain.

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