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Pickleball’s popularity causes park-use confusion

Mark Parker

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Crescent Lake Park was at the center of the debate, as it is a "passive" park with active uses, such as tennis. Photo: www.stpeteparksrec.org/crescentlakepark/.

The number of St. Petersburg residents seeking tennis courts to play a game Sports Illustrated recently called “the fastest-growing sport in America” has reached the point that city council members are now debating where the city should allow pickleball.

During Thursday’s Public Services and Infrastructure (PSI) Committee meeting, city council members discussed possible amendments to the city code that clarify what constitutes a “substantial change” in the use of park property. Mike Jefferis, leisure services administrator, told the committee that his department strives to evolve and stay current with the city’s parkland and noted varying interpretations of city code regarding the subject.

Jefferis said the goal of the discussion was to provide clarification and ascertain council members’ thoughts on how the city should proceed regarding changes to parks and the amenities they provide.

“One of the examples that is most current – as each and every one of you is aware – is pickleball,” said Jefferis. “Frequently, we are evaluating tennis courts … and we’re looking to find that balance between the two as we work with neighborhood associations and stakeholder groups.”

The meeting failed to meet the two aforementioned goals, as Councilmember Lisset Hanecwicz said the amendment’s language caused more confusion, and the committee decided to shelve any vote until city attorneys provided more clarification.

According to Sports Illustrated, actor Jeff Daniels once called pickleball “half-court basketball for elderly people.” More of a cross between tennis and Ping-Pong, the burgeoning sport now boasts 4.8 million enthusiasts, including Leonardo DiCaprio and recently retired football star Drew Brees.

The game consists of two or four players with solid paddles hitting something similar to a Wiffle ball over a net. The paddles are similar to those in table tennis while the court is the same size as a doubles badminton court. Founded as a children’s backyard game in Washington in 1965, the game has recently exploded in popularity among adults. The International Federation of Pickleball now oversees 58 member countries.

Known for its parks and green spaces, the Trust for Public Land recently rated St. Pete 14th in the nation in its 2022 ParkScore rankings. According to the report, 77% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

City parks are classified as either “active” or “passive,” with the latter resembling more of a nature preserve and the former hosting activities. However, some passive parks have activities – like tennis – that the city grandfathered into usage agreements.  The crux of the committee’s confusion concerned whether the city should consider a change from an allowable active use (tennis) in a passive park to another active use (pickleball) as a significant change.

Any changes to city parks deemed “substantial” require public hearings and the super-majority approval of six council members.

Hanewicz relayed the specific language in the city code she found contradicting. “The following shall be considered a substantial change of use: a permanent change of use in a passive park to a use other than a passive use.”

“Crescent Lake Park is a passive park,” said Hanewicz emphatically. “It has tennis courts. Changing those tennis courts to pickleball courts triggers this.

“Period. End of story.”

Crescent Lake Park features four tennis courts, two of which have been converted for pickleball. The game only occupies a fraction of a tennis court, allowing six teams of four to play simultaneously on what was two tennis courts. Despite the ability for 24 people to play at once, there is often a long line of players waiting to enter a game.

Hanewicz, an attorney, then noted another section that stated that changing an active park use to a similar activity does not constitute a substantial change.

She expressed her desire for one-on-one conversations to clarify the contradictory language, and noted her husband, also an attorney, similarly found the amendment confusing.

Michael Dema, managing assistant city attorney, said his office agreed that Hanewicz’s interpretation was reasonable. He added that there were two different patterns and noted the importance of clarifying interpretations of the city charter.

“The purpose here is to say if a passive park goes … to an active use, it’s always, 100%, a substantial change of use,” said Dema. “If it’s an already established active use, and you’re staying within that same category, we don’t have to go through all of that.”

Hanewicz said that Dema missed her point, and County Administrator Rob Gerdes then suggested further discussion between the council members and legal team before bringing the item back to the committee.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she understood what Dema was trying to say and thought the point of the referral was to clarify the language in the sunshine – or public space. While she said she was ok with deferring the business item, she was also worried about setting a bad precedent that “when one person doesn’t agree with something, we table everything.”

“Because there’s things that have come before us that I didn’t agree with, but I didn’t ask you to table it,” she added. “I had my vote.”

Council Chair Gina Driscoll said she thought giving everyone time to better understand the proposed amendments to the city code was a good idea. She added that she understood Hanewicz’s questions and frustration “because it almost seems like we’ve got two definitions going on in the same park (Crescent Lake).”

“We do need to look at that because it’s extremely important – not just to Councilmember Hanewicz, but to all of us – to get it right with this particular park,” said Driscoll. “Which is just such a gem.”

The committee will discuss the proposed amendments at a later date, following further discussions between city council members and attorneys.

 

 

 

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    May 27, 2022at3:16 pm

    Although it may be categorized as a passive park, Crescent Lake is active. It may be the most activated park in the city thanks to the conversion of two tennis courts into six pickle ball courts. My family loves the change and would be disappointed to see such a successful activation reversed.

    Crescent Lake should be transitioned to an active park so that we may also have some restrooms constructed. Having to walk back home from the playground to change a diaper, or to take my kids or myself to the bathroom is ridiculously inconvenient. My mother has difficulty watching my kids at the park because there’s no bathroom for her to use.

  2. Avatar

    Vicki

    May 27, 2022at7:12 pm

    Your article is incorrect- Crescent Lake currently has six pickleball courts and two tennis courts

    • Joe Hamilton

      Joe Hamilton

      May 28, 2022at6:01 am

      Thanks Vicki – we’ve updated the article.

  3. Avatar

    Lori Jablonowski

    May 28, 2022at7:14 am

    Love Crescent Lake Park! I am surprised to hear it is considered a passive park because it always has lots of activity. I see lots of children playing on the playground, lots of dogs at the dog park and the 2 tennis courts snd 6 pickleball courts are always quite crowded. Then add all the people walking, running or picnicking in the park. I agree with the other comment that adding bathrooms would be a huge improvement. As a pickleball player in St Pete I know there is a tremendous need for more courts. Fossil Park has a few but that’s about it for the immediate area.
    Some days my group of friends end out just going home because there is no where to play. So not only should the city change the status to active and allow pickleball they should also add more courts!

  4. Avatar

    Joseph Sabadish MD

    May 29, 2022at1:51 pm

    Defining what an active part is would be helpful. Exchanging one activity within a passive park with a substantially similar activity seems to be easily allowed. The foot print of the court area doesn’t change. Replacing a tennis with something like a pool would definitely trigger a change of park designation and require all kinds of “approval “.
    I travel a lot and have played pickleball in at least 20 states. The vast majority of states have realized what an asset pickleball is to a community. I encourage city representatives to study other facilities and to discover the financial and tourism benefits as well as the physical benefits.
    One should also note the original conversion of tennis courts to pickleball courts was done on the cheap. They are dangerously uneven and the playing surface is peeling away. Someone WILL be hurt. If council ever decides to act, please hire only high quality (read, like Naples) contractors.

  5. Avatar

    OriginalJud

    May 29, 2022at9:08 pm

    Crescent Lake is very much an active park. The 1.1 mile jog walking trail alone is filled with people and the big field has people playing Aussie rules football flag football workouts I see cross-country teams staging meets there St Pete High baseball come on.

  6. Avatar

    Georgina

    June 11, 2022at8:44 am

    Crescent Lake Park is beautiful. I’m surprised it’s considered a passive park because it’s usually buzzing with activity. The playground is frequently occupied, the dog park is constantly busy, and the two tennis courts and six pickleball courts are always busy. Then factor in everyone who is walking, running, or picnicking in the park. I agree with the prior comment that adding bathrooms would be a huge improvement. As a pickleball player in St. Pete, I understand the urgent need for more courts. There are a handful in Fossil Park, but nothing else in the area.

  7. Avatar

    Elizabeth

    July 1, 2022at3:14 pm

    As a resident of Crescent Lake and having lived almost the entire 5.5 years on the Lake since moving to St Petersburg, the activity in the park has only increased. From Sunrise to Sunset people of all ages, including their pets, are living their best lives around the Lake. While I’m an avid PB player I’m equally as passionate about the wildlife around the park, the safety of everyone who visits there and maintaining the conditions of the pristine venue. The City should be more focused on the recycling station behind the historic ballpark rather than the semantics surrounding passive vs. active regarding tennis or PB. There is enough space to expand courts for both and refinish the surfaces for all. There is money available to add some noise buffering if needed. But let’s get on with it already.

  8. Avatar

    Don LaGrone

    November 1, 2022at8:21 am

    Crescent Lake is an “passive park” by definition under the city codes. There are active areas permitted within it such as baseball and racquet sports, but in order to add a new sport on a permanent basis in a passive park, the code requires polling of residents adjacent to the park and a supermajority vote of the city council. The space already permitted for tennis/Pickleball would NOT be enlarged by applying dual use lines to the remaining tennis courts, or converting them to pickleball, and would thus NOT be a substantial change under the code.
    Those who oppose pickleball want to amend the code to define pickleball as a distinctly different use, which will make expansion virtually impossible. Crescent Lake’s tennis courts are RARELY used, while pickleball is overflowing. This is OUR PARK and should accommodate our needs. Public input is needed. This decision should NOT be made by a closed meeting of opinionated councilors and attorneys.

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