The Bird Key Yacht Club has been unable to quiet resident concerns about plans to build pickleball courts, setting the stage for a prolonged fight.
A community workshop regarding proposed pickleball courts at the Bird Key Yacht Club turned out to be a contentious series of back-and-forths, with residents sparring against representatives for the business in the center of the island neighborhood.
In the middle of the two-hour Aug. 8 meeting, a Bird Key resident diverged from the technical details of the pickleball plans and started an exchange that cut to the center of the dispute.
“How many of you want pickleball courts next to your homes?” asked Phyllis Rose, questioning the yacht club representatives there to present the plans.
“I didn’t move next door to a yacht club,” replied David Cohen, a yacht club board member and Bird Key resident who asserted the club’s right to build the courts despite neighbors’ objections.
The city-mandated meeting, designed to allow the developer to gather input from neighboring property owners, ended with little resolution. Brian McCarthy, who’s representing the yacht club through the development-review process, said he intended to meet again with residents to try to make the pickleball plans more mutually acceptable.
At the same time, he acknowledged the highly charged atmosphere at last week’s workshop.
“I think that will be a productive use of our time — and maybe a quieter and more deliberative environment,” McCarthy said.
Quiet the racket
The city workshop did occasionally veer into the dramatic. People in attendance characterized the game as a “hillbilly thing,” questioned whether increased traffic from the courts would endanger children playing in the street and asked if the yacht club felt it had the right to build amusement park rides on its property.
Overwhelmingly, though, residents’ concerns focused on one issue: noise. Near the beginning of the workshop, yacht club representative Brian Lichterman described pickleball as a “very quiet sport.” That drew laughs from the audience.
A paddle sport that blends elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis, pickleball is traditionally played with a hard ball and hard racket.
“The loudness of that sound is as loud as a baseball being hit out of the park — except it’s being hit constantly,” said Bird Key resident Al Bordenstein.
Bordenstein lives in the home adjacent to the proposed pickleball courts, six in total. Preliminary plans from the yacht club suggest the courts will be located less than 40 feet from his property line.
This turmoil in Bird Key isn’t without precedent. As the sport has spiked in popularity across the country, residents living in close proximity to courts have complained about noise.
It’s even inspired legal action: A 2016 lawsuit in Newport Beach, Calif., contended that courts located 300 feet from a woman’s house created sustained periods of noise above 60 decibels. That’s about equal to the volume of a conversation with someone five feet away. The woman eventually dropped the case.
Bordenstein said he’s looked at similar disputes — typically between residents and homeowners’ associations — and determined that 300 feet is a fairly standard minimum accepted distance between homes and pickleball courts.
“Bird Key Yacht Club wants to put theirs within less than 100 feet of five houses, and within 200 feet of 20 or 30 houses,” Bordenstein said. “It’s egregious.”
Representatives for the yacht club said they’ll follow city setback and noise regulations. They’ve measured the sound of the sport at around 50 decibels, quieter than the tennis courts already on the property. McCarthy said the yacht club would strive to use quieter equipment — foam balls and padded paddles.
Residents were quick to point out that McCarthy did not commit to exclusively using that quieter equipment. McCarthy said he did not want to guarantee the club would use items that could become outdated or that a manufacturer would stop making.
Acknowledging the facts in question surrounding the noise the sport generates, McCarthy took a step back and reaffirmed a general belief it won’t be a nuisance for neighbors.
“Anybody can say anything,” McCarthy said. “Whether it’s tennis or pickleball, we think it’s a relatively quiet sport.”
Subject to approval
There are legal and procedural questions surrounding the pickleball plans, as well.
The land on which the yacht club plans to build the courts is technically two residential platted lots, as defined in the Bird Key Homeowners Association adopted bylaws. Residents who oppose the project have argued the project needs approval from the association.
Cohen, however, outlined the yacht club’s argument that the property isn’t subject to the same requirements imposed on residential developments. When the yacht club received the land in question, it was given with the stipulation the land can be used for yacht club purposes.
Since 1981, the yacht club has used the property for a parking lot. That required city approval, but not approval from the homeowners association, Cohen said. Since the club installed the parking lot, it has not received any claims that it would need approval from the homeowners association.
“After 36 years, it is our position that the association has waived any right to contest the use of (the land),” Cohen said.
Chris Van Hise, an attorney with Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick, attended the community workshop as a representative for Bordenstein and asked a number of questions regarding the specifics of the yacht club’s plans. The club has not yet filed official plans for the project with the city
“Pretty soon, you’ll see what our firepower is.” — Al Bordenstein
The project is subject to Planning Board and City Commission approval before it can move forward. Bordenstein did not outline how residents planned to contest the pickleball plans, but he indicated there would be a strong, sustained opposition.
“Pretty soon, you’ll see what our firepower is,” Bordenstein said.
Neither residents nor the yacht club suggested they were intractable. Bordenstein suggested a meeting between residents and yacht club representatives to discuss landscaping and other sound-attenuation measures. McCarthy said he was happy to entertain outside ideas.
“Obviously, our fiduciary responsibility is to the club and its longevity and our members,” McCarthy said. “To the degree we can accommodate our neighbors, we would like to do so. But we believe we have a right to use that property for yacht club purposes.”
Even after the workshop, McCarthy remained open to the idea of a brokered peace. He also addressed the realistic possibility that the dispute will linger.
“We hope we can work it out,” McCarthy said. “And if we can’t, it’ll be adjudicated.”