Play to resume on outdoor pickleball courts in Virgil

The six courts first opened in 2019, took the place of four tennis courts at the Four Mile Creek Road complex, but they have sat unused after a noise complaint by a nearby resident wound up with the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the NOTL Pickleball Club being taken to court and fined $1,000 each for breaching the town’s noise bylaw of the time.

As a result, pickleball activities were moved indoors to Centennial Arena.

Play will resume on the courts on June 17.

According to the report on the matter, staff have been working with the pickleball club on ways to mitigate noise from the sport. Pickleball has exploded in popularity in recent years and it is no different in NOTL, where membership in the club has grown to 580 participants since it was established in 2017.

Some of the factors considered for cutting down noise levels included a reduction in the number of hours courts will be available for both club and public use, controlling access to the courts during certain times of the day, noise-reduced paddles and the installation of acoustic panels to help reduce noise from the courts.

But the approval didn’t come without some reservations, however, as Coun. Sandra O’Connor wondered whether the town had planned to inform residents living in the Lambert’s Walk condominium overlooking the courts.

It was Oana Scafesi, a resident of Lambert’s Walk, who had complained about noise from the courts and took legal action against the town and the pickleball club.

“I couldn't find anywhere in the report that said there was some kind of engagement of the local residents there to let them know what has been done in the noise mitigation,” she said, introducing an amendment that would commit staff to informing Lambert’s Walk residents of the reopening.

Kevin Turcotte, the town’s manager of parks and recreation, said there hadn't been any consultation but “council did revise their noise bylaw in 2022 and in that revision, sound coming from a town-owned property for recreational activities are exempt.”

He said if council decided they wanted staff to notify residents, they would do so.

O’Connor, meanwhile, said councillors were going to be dealing with a community engagement update report from staff later in the meeting that said “we take pride in our thoughtful and dynamic community engagement efforts."

“I think this is one we should apply here, because of the history,” she said, adding steps being taken with noise mitigation were “a positive thing.”

But Coun. Erwin Weins was opposed to the O’Connor amendment.

“This was very public, both locally and internationally,” Weins said, referring to the court action brought about by Scafesi.

“I think there’s been enough engagement in regard to pickleball and to what we want to do. There’s a certain obligation on our residents to be engaged,” he said, adding he didn’t want to see the opening “delayed into the summer months.”

But O’Connor said she wasn’t looking to delay the reopening.

“I just expected (to have) one public meeting to inform the residents,” she said.

Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa, meanwhile, agreed with Weins.

“I think I’m comfortable with the level of engagement,” he said, adding that a lot of engagement was done in 2022 when the noise bylaw was revised.

The change to the bylaw exempts sports and recreation activities taking place on town property such as the sports park from the bylaw.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to go out and re-engage on a specific issue like this.”

Coun. Wendy Cheropita expressed her support for the report.

“This has been a really terrible journey to go through, this closing of the pickleball courts because of one complaint,” she said.

”But to now get to the point where we are actually going to reopen with some really good mitigation of noise.”

She added that staff had worked closely with the pickleball club.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of people in our community ... that are very happy to see this report come through,” Cheropita said.

Asked by committee chair Coun. Gary Burroughs as to what the panels do, Turcotte said that the panels absorb and reflect the noise from the courts into the sports park and away from the nearby homes. One of the vendors the town has been working with said sound levels can be lowered by 10 to 15 decibels.

“It's really remarkable material to do that,” Turcotte said.

The Lake Report contacted Scafesi, who divides her time between homes in NOTL and Toronto. She was reluctant to speak about the issue.

“I have to refrain from commenting on it,” she said. “I don’t want to be rude or misunderstood from talking about the issue. I just want to be in a peaceful environment.”

To cover the cost of the acoustic panels, the town has applied for a Trillium Grant for $32,000, $10,000 of which would go toward the cost of the panels. Should that grant request be denied, the $10,000 to cover the cost will be transferred from capital reserves.

The town will post information about the changes and reopening on its website and social media channels.

Richard Hutton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report