Converting tennis courts to pickleball courts has drawn the ire of some nearby residents and sparked ongoing debate over what constitutes a “substantial change” to St. Petersburg’s parks.
At a Feb. 8 committee meeting, city council members approved proposed city code amendments that clarify outdated language. Most notably, the revisions eliminate an exception that allowed the city to convert less than a quarter-acre of “passive” park space to “active” uses.
The city council must now approve any permanent change affecting 60% of park property by a six-person supermajority vote. Officials must also notify residents within a 200-yard radius before conducting public hearings.
“Although there are a lot of people who love pickleball, there’s another side to it,” said Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz. “And it’s the neighbors that have to hear the noise.”
The Public Services and Infrastructure Committee first discussed adopting the code amendments in May 2022. Sports Illustrated had recently named pickleball the “fastest-growing sport in America,” and the city’s parks department was trying to keep up with demand for new facilities.
The game consists of two or four players with solid paddles hitting something similar to a Wiffle Ball over a net. A regulation tennis court could hold four pickleball games.
St. Petersburg classifies its parks as active or passive, with the latter featuring more greenspace and the former hosting competitive sports. However, the city grandfathered some recreational activities – like tennis – into passive park usage agreements.
Hanewizc noted the issue arose when the city converted two of Crescent Lake Park’s allowable tennis courts into pickleball facilities. She said that significantly increased the public amenity’s density.
“In a way, you changed all of the character of it,” Hanewicz added. “So, it was a huge change. I think when pickleball first appeared, people did not think about the unintended consequences …”
Those conversions would now require public notices and hearings. Assistant city attorney Heather Judd said the amendments would also prevent active uses encompassing less than a quarter-acre but affecting over 60% of a smaller park’s land.
Potential problems will likely persist. Mike Jefferis, community enrichment administrator, warned that “it is extremely rare – if not a nonoccurrence – for us to ever change an amenity in a park and have consensus.”
Jefferis, who also oversees the Parks and Recreation Department, noted that land is increasingly scarce in St. Petersburg. He said the demand for recreational opportunities is also growing alongside the city’s population.
Jefferis called recent issues at Denver Park in Shore Acres a “prime example” of conflicting community opinions. The city converted two tennis courts into pickleball facilities, which Councilmember Ed Montanari said are 60 feet from single-family homes.
While several residents requested the changes, others bemoaned a lack of public outreach. Montanari said many park neighbors are now airing their concerns.
The city considers Denver Park active. Even with the updated ordinance, the conversions would not constitute a substantial change.
Jefferis said the Shore Acres Civic Association formally requested the neighborhood’s recently opened recreation center. However, he said the adjacent residents have also expressed concerns.
“We really try to be good neighbors,” Jefferis said. “But there are some communities who have become paralyzed because you’re never going to find an activity that is embraced by all.”
He also stressed that a passive park is not a nature preserve. Those spaces can feature concession stands, sheltered picnic areas, border fencing and sports fields – according to the parks department and city attorney’s interpretation of usage restrictions.
Judd said the city would not consider temporary bleachers a substantial change. A permanent structure is allowable in active parks if it meets greenspace requirements.
City attorneys and officials must still discuss potential ordinance clauses, “lookbacks” and grandfathering allowances. Montanari said they should also consider local pickleball policies so “people can enjoy peace and quiet in their homes.”
“That’s a national debate going on right now,” Jefferis replied. “If we were not a peninsula on a peninsula, we would certainly desire to have our pickleball as far away as we possibly can. We also go towards the indoor pickleball courts. It is about that balance, and it’s something we take very seriously.”