Florida Southern College student Billy McLaughlin serves during a pickleball game at Woodlake Park. Neighbors have complained about the noise from the games. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

There is a feud percolating, pitting pickleball players at the city-run Woodlake Park against harried homeowners in the nearby Waterford neighborhood off New Jersey Road.

The pickleball players complain that the city cut their playing time at Woodlake Park by at least two hours when it moved the official start of play to 8 a.m. and pushed the closing time back to 8 p.m. Other pickleball courts in the city open at dawn and close at 9 p.m.

Homeowners say they are being driven mad by the relentless “thwack, thwack, thwack” of hard balls against hard paddles and the screams of excited players when they make a particularly great shot. They say it was happening as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 10 or 11 p.m., as people ignored the posted court times. Some parents complained that the cacophony and court lights were keeping kids awake.

The conflict has drawn in other groups as well.

Park patrons say because of the noise complaints, the city has now forbidden them to use any aspect of the park after hours.  They can no longer walk their dogs or let their children play on the playground past 8 p.m. They said they’ve been threatened by city workers with trespass citations.

And tennis players, who use a quieter ball and have never had a complaint from neighbors, say they’re being punished and kept off their courts when they have nothing to do with the feud or the sometimes-rude behavior of pickleball players.

What is pickleball?

Billed as the fastest-growing sport in the nation, pickleball is a cross between tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong.  The game was invented in the mid-1960s but has taken off in the last decade, fueled in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The courts are surfaced like traditional tennis courts but are only about a quarter the size. At 20 feet by 44 feet each, four pickleball courts can fit on one standard tennis court.

Players use hard paddles like in Ping-Pong.  The ball looks like a miniature whiffle ball and is made of hard plastic — hence the staccato “pop, pop, pop” that can sound like popcorn in a microwave when several games are happening simultaneously.

Tumultuous meeting

The feud bubbled over into a battle Tuesday evening at the Magnolia Building on Lake Mirror when the various factions met to air their concerns and come up with possible solutions.

“No decision will be made tonight,” City Parks and Recreation Director Bob Donahay told about 150 people who gathered for the meeting, despite the first bands of rain from Hurricane Idalia approaching the city.

“We’re going to take notes and listen to the public,” he said. “And please don’t make this personal. A lot of you are neighbors. Please don’t be bad neighbors.”

Woodlake Park was built in the late 1970s before the Waterford neighborhood was constructed. The park currently has eight tennis courts. Donahay said six tennis courts were converted to pickleball courts in 2014 at a cost of about $40,000 per court. The park also has restrooms, a children’s playground and shaded, wooded areas for walking.

Donahay said his office began receiving complaints about the pickleball players after Parks & Rec installed lights for the courts in January. He admitted that they had to readjust the lights’ angles to aim them away from people’s homes in Waterford.

Then neighbors told city officials that players were blocking roadways, children were almost hit by cars driven by people trying to get to the courts, and a petition was circulated among the Waterford neighbors.  The city sent out two trucks to block off the parking lots in the morning until the newly appointed hour of play.

“We’ve had everything taken from us,” said passionate pickleballer Heather Arnold.  “This has totally destroyed the lives of so many people.”

Arnold suggested that the city swap some of the courts and their lights for existing tennis courts that are by New Jersey and away from the homes. Although, she added tennis balls are just as loud as pickleballs.

Pickleball noise nuisance

But Donahay said that’s not true.  The city researched it and found that tennis balls, which have hair-like insulation surrounding them, have a decibel level of 40, while pickleballs measure at 75 decibels.

At Woodlake Park, the staccato smacking of up to six simultaneous pickleball games is heard all day, every day — and on into the evening.

Residents in the Waterford neighborhood have complained about noisy pickleball games at neighboring Woodlake Park. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to noise above 70 decibels over a prolonged period of time “may start to damage your hearing.” In the workplace, employers must implement a “hearing conservation program” for workers exposed to average sound levels of 85 decibels or higher.

Bob Unetich, 77, an avid pickleball player and retired Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor who studied sound waves and signals, told The New York Times that decibels alone don’t explain why pickleball noise is so maddening.

Unetich, who founded Pickleball Sound Mitigation LLC, said the high-pitched sound that the union of ball and paddle generate can “create vibrations in a range that can be extremely annoying to humans,” similar in noise frequency to the beeps of a garbage truck.

Suggested solutions

One pickleballer suggested Lake Parker Park, which sits between Lakeland Hills Boulevard and Lake Parker with no homes close by, could be a pickleball paradise.

Lake Parker Park at Gate 1 has two hard surface tennis courts that are also lined for pickleball. Gate 4 has six pickleball courts.

Courts can also be found at Kelly Recreation Complex on Imperial Boulevard, the Beerman Family Tennis complex on Edgewood Drive, and there is an indoor pickleball court at Simpson Park open on weekdays only.

Some in the audience asked if a noise-barrier fence could be installed. Donahay said two members of his management team researched that possibility but were told by colleagues in Pinellas County that the noise barrier didn’t work.  Lakeland has looked into windscreens as a deterrent but found they didn’t work, either.

“We haven’t found a noise barrier yet that works,” Donahay said, adding that residents in the Grasslands neighborhood are also complaining about the private pickleball courts there.

Some other solutions offered Tuesday included planting a tree barrier — although Donahay said the city has planted cypress trees, to no avail.  Another man suggested that homeowners who have room in their backyards should plant their own trees.

James Stephen, who owns the company 11-0 Pickleball, said the only soundproof barrier is something called an air bubble – a domelike structure over a court.  According to the website sportsvenuecalculator.com, they aren’t cheap, with the average price tag between $1 million and $2.9 million. Although it’s substantially less than building an indoor facility.

Headaches for homeowners

City Parks and Recreation Director Bob Donahay listens to concerned residents during a meeting about pickleball courts at Woodlake Park. | courtesy City of Lakeland

At Tuesday’s meeting, Donahay said his grandchildren go to bed at 8 p.m. He was then jeered by pickleball players in the back of the room. 

City of Lakeland Communications Director Kevin Cook, normally affable and laid back — and also an avid pickleball player — became visibly angry, leapt up and yelled at those in the back to show respect to those speaking.

Colleen Riddle said she bought her home in Waterford in 2016.  She is a former collegiate athlete and has coached sports.  She said she puts her four young children to bed at 7:30 p.m.

“If you live along that route, it is personal because it’s our lives,” Riddle said, adding that her children are losing sleep.  “We don’t have to ruin their physical health, their mental health.  The whole point is to meet in the middle.”

Riddle said her children, who are known to be polite, have almost been hit by cars twice near the park.

Donald King said he has been a Waterford resident for nearly 20 years. He told the crowd that he can no longer sit in his pool or drink his morning coffee on his porch without pickleball players making faces or yelling at him and without hearing the thwacks of paddle-on-ball.

“All you hear is bam bam bam,” King said, adding that the players could drive about a mile and half northwest and play at the Edgewood courts.  “You say you’re not bugging anybody.  You bugging the s*** out of me.”

Perks of pickleball

Dr. Daniel Haight, former head of the Polk County Health Department who lives about 10 minutes away from the courts, said he plays tennis and pickleball and wants to see more Lakeland residents become physically active. He said he understands people who want to play early in the morning, especially this summer when Florida has seen a record and sustained heatwave, with heat indexes well over 100 degrees for months.

“Lakeland was named the seventh most obese city in the U.S. several years ago,” said Haight, who wrote a letter to the neighborhood as the argument intensified in June.

Florida Southern College student Santiago Zuniga serves during a pickleball game at Woodlake Park. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

In Tuesday’s meeting, he cited a U.S. Surgeon General report from May, which raises the alarm about an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the United States.” Haight said sports is one way out of that, including pickleball.

He shared statistics from the Florida Department of Health showing that 83% of Florida residents are either sedentary, inactive or insufficiently active between 2016 and 2021.

“Anything that increases options for activities, let alone activities for young people in a safe environment, should be encouraged,” his letter to neighbors stated.

One woman asked if the rumors were true that city officials were going to remove the pickleball courts altogether.

“There’s no intention at this time to close Woodlake (to pickleball),” Cook answered.

Pickleball player Andy Baker said he wants to solve the problem “human-to-human. This is about pickleball, but this is about quality of life, too.  Yelling at each other — it doesn’t solve anything.”

This story has been corrected. Dr. Daniel Haight lives near Woodlake Park.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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