Old Lyme Zoning Commission slams pickleball proposal

Mar. 12—OLD LYME — Pickleball is a sport unlike any other.

That's according to the Zoning Commission, which on Monday rejected a motion to approve the Old Lyme Country Club's plans for two dedicated pickleball courts by a 4-2 vote.

There had been vehement opposition from neighbors who complained the pop, pop, pop of the perforated balls against paddles and profanities shouted by aggressive players disrupted their ability to enjoy their backyards.

The country club at 40 McCurdy Road was seeking to modify a 2006 special permit that spells out tennis ― not pickleball ― as an approved use of the property.

Commission member Jane Marsh during deliberations said the difference between pickleball and tennis was at the crux of the decision.

"Is this another tennis court or is it something completely different? If it's something completely different, we can say no just on that basis," she said, referring to a zoning tenet that says any activity not expressly approved is not allowed.

According to Marsh, the difference is evident in how the sports impact neighbors' lives.

"This particular use is not like the tennis courts," she said. "We've never had complaints about people playing tennis on the courts."

The proposal has been pitched by the country club's attorney as a way to give players a dedicated space farther away from neighbors who have complained about noise and parking concerns resulting from pickleball play. Matches to date have been waged on makeshift courts previously reserved for platform tennis.

Land Use Coordinator and Zoning Enforcement Officer Knapp has maintained pickleball is enough like tennis to fall within the intent of the special permit.

Pickleball, which the Sports & Fitness Industry Association in 2022 said grew 39.3% in popularity over the prior two years, is a combination of badminton, ping-pong and tennis.

Dueling experts

A group of McCurdy Court neighbors, prominent at multiple public hearings over more than a year, declined to comment on their victory after the meeting. The group had retained pickleball expert Robert Unetich to evaluate the country club's plan to mitigate noise on the proposed courts.

Unetich, of Pickleball Sound Mitigation, has become a preeminent voice in the fight to keep noise levels at neighboring homes below 50 decibels, which is described as typical background noise. He's been widely quoted in media outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR and CNN.

Country club Secretary Dennis Lavette after the meeting said he wasn't surprised by the commission's decision. Asked if the club would be appealing the rejection to state Superior Court, he said members would be consulting with their attorney to consider their options.

The vote came amid conflicting opinions from engineers on either side of the issue. Unetich and the country club's expert, Bennett Brooks of Brooks Acoustics Corp., had volleyed back and forth for months about whether the change would be an improvement over the current state of play.

Representatives of the club said the new courts, slated to be built 100 feet from the platform tennis courts, would keep pickleball noise under 45 decibels as heard by neighbors.

But neighbors stood behind their expert's report to argue noise would continue to exceed background noise levels, even with a 12-foot fence to absorb some of the sound.

Third consultant called in

At the basis of the commission's decision was a third-party report paid for by the town to determine if either of the experts had reached the proper conclusion about the sound levels.

Gregory C. Tocci, principal consultant with the Massachusetts-based Cavanaugh Tocci acoustics firm, said he concurred with Unetich's conclusion that the proposal would be heard by neighbors at levels that exceed the 55-decibel maximum laid out in the town's noise ordinance.

"As such, the proposed OLCC pickleball courts should not be built as proposed," Tocci wrote.

He added sound levels "may possibly be acceptable" if the country club built a significantly taller fence along the northeast and northwest sides to shield neighbors.

Tocci said 45 decibels should be the goal.

Marsh leaned on Unetich and Tocci's determinations, as well as the 2006 permit that authorizes tennis but not pickleball, in rejecting the proposal.

"The sound of pickleball would pierce through background noise," she said.

The rejected motion to approve the courts would have applied numerous conditions. They included limiting pickleball play to the two dedicated courts from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., posting strict parking rules and requiring country club staff members to enforce the conditions whenever courts are being used.

Member Tammy Tinnerello described herself as conflicted but ultimately voted in favor of approving the project with conditions. She said she believed the current practice of playing pickleball on the raised platform closer to neighbors' homes exacerbated noise and lighting issues.

Pickleball play will likely continue

Michael Barnes, an alternate seated for the vote in the absence of a full commission, said rejecting the proposal would reinforce the status quo.

"I see the application as an opportunity to maybe correct the problem if (the country club) had a chance to," he said. "But I don't know if they're going to get that chance, and the pickleball play continues and the sound continues."

Other members argued it's up to police to enforce the noise ordinance, But Barnes was skeptical.

"We can't get the town to do speed traps on Route 1," he said.

Knapp, the zoning enforcement officer, reiterated there's nobody patrolling decibel levels exceeding the threshold outlined in the town ordinance.

"Nobody does and nobody will," he said.

Alternate Denise Savageau reiterated pickleball is not currently included as an authorized use in the zoning special permit. That means enforcement is in Knapp's court.

"Right now they're doing it. We've ignored it," she said. "Once it comes to your attention, it's not enforcing a noise ordinance. It's enforcing a zoning ordinance."