Pickleball players upset over Congress Park, Sloans Lake court removals

Pickleball players are calling fault on a Denver Parks and Recreation plan to ban courts at two city parks and are accusing a parks official of making arbitrary decisions about where the sport should be played in the city.

The players believe they are being targeted because their sport is louder than tennis and basketball and is growing ever more popular with city residents, who wait in lines to play the game on public courts that stay busy from dawn to dusk.

“Denver Parks and Recreation has shown clear animosity and hostility toward pickleball,” said Hollynd Hoskins, a Denver attorney who is representing the pickleball community in its battle with the city’s parks department. “I don’t understand why.”

In a 37-page appeal filed Monday to the Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, Hoskins wrote that canceling plans to build new pickleball courts and ban the sport entirely at Congress Park and Sloan’s Lake were arbitrary decisions made by a deputy parks director who did not follow the city’s rules for parks planning.

Players are asking the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board to hold a public hearing on pickleball planning so they can find a solution that satisfies neighbors and pickleball enthusiasts. They want the issue to be included on the board’s Wednesday meeting agenda.

“We’re asking for a seat at the table,” Hoskins said.

Pickleball already was growing in popularity but it exploded during the pandemic as people searched for outdoor recreation and social opportunities. Pickleball fit their needs because it can be played by people of all ages and abilities and it provides an outlet for socialization as people mingle at the courts.

At Congress Park, an alley separates the four existing pickleball courts from houses with values exceeding $1.5 million and where well-manicured backyards are just yards away from the constant popping of plastic balls hitting racquets.

Neighbors have complained about the noise dating back to at least 2018, said Cyndi Karvaski, a parks and recreation spokeswoman.

But the tension came to a head on April 3 when the parks department announced it was canceling a plan to relocate the pickleball courts deeper into the park as part of an improvement project. Officials also posted notices on three tennis courts that pickleball is not allowed to be played there because of noise ordinance violations.

The city recently closed a pickleball court, a tennis court and a basketball court at Congress Park for renovations and remodeling. The plan had been to build eight new courts and move them about 350 feet away from the nearby houses while demolishing and rebuilding courts for all three sports, Karvaski said.

“To be completely candid, we were not aware at that point we were exceeding the noise violation,” she said.

Parks department officials then decided to measure the noise level around the neighborhood during pickleball matches. The recordings exceeded the decibel level allowed under city ordinance.

Officials realized that moving courts farther away would not ease the noise violations, Karvaski said.

“We made the decision that we would not have pickleball courts at Congress and we would look at other places within our parks system where we could have pickleball courts,” she said.

At the same time, the parks department had plans to build pickleball courts at Sloan’s Lake as part of a larger park improvement project. But those plans were canceled as well because it would be too loud for nearby residents, Karvaski said.

“Reckless and arbitrary” decisions

The Congress Park players said the first they had heard of the canceled plans when deputy parks director Scott Gilmore appeared on a 9News broadcast to announce pickleball would no longer be allowed at Congress Park and Sloan’s Lake because of noise violations, Hoskins said.

In her appeal, Hoskins included email exchanges between Gilmore and officials at the parks department and Denver Public Health about creating a rule that pickleball courts must be 500 feet from residences.

A health department official responded in one email urging Gilmore to use caution in creating distance rules. The health department official said a sound study would be needed for each site and would need to include characteristics such as topography, trees and surrounding buildings.

Hoskins said those email exchanges illustrate that Gilmore was making “reckless and arbitrary” decisions about pickleball. And it is why the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board needs to intervene.

But Karvaski said the advisory board has “no process for entertaining this appeal” because its members, who are appointed by the mayor, City Council and Denver Public Schools, only serve to give advice and make recommendations.

It will be up to the advisory board to decide whether the pickleball controversy will be added to its Wednesday agenda.

The parks department this spring assembled a pickleball advisory group to help plan for more courts in the city, she said. The city has six outdoor pickleball locations, and the advisory group is supposed to help find new locations and figure out ways to mitigate noise.

The pickleball community along the Front Range is large and passionate, and the dispute over the Congress Park and Sloan’s Lake plans is the latest controversy.

In March, the Centennial City Council passed a six-month moratorium on building new outdoor courts so its parks department could have more time to study noise mitigation.

And Denver’s pickleball community was up in arms after city officials pursued felony charges against 71-year-old Arslan Guney, who used a Sharpie to draw pickleball lines on a basketball court at the Central Park Recreation Center.

The charges were dropped after Guney agreed to pay a fine to help restore the basketball court.

Hoskins represented Guney in the case. She has become the de facto pickleball lawyer in the city, taking up cases pro bono because she is passionate about the sport. Hoskins, who plays on a national level, even withdrew from a weekend tournament to write her appeal.

“There has to be a solution”

On Monday morning, she joined dozens of other pickleball players at Martin Luther King Park, where four pickleball courts were filled and a line of others waiting their turn surrounded the fence. Many wore Congress Park Pickleball Club T-shirts and complained about being displaced from their usual courts.

Dr. Deborah Saint-Phard, a sports medicine physician who played at Congress Park, said she was surprised when she saw signs posted that pickleball was no longer allowed because of noise complaints. She enjoyed being able to walk from her home to the park for exercise.

“I don’t understand why some more vocal people have gotten to leadership at Denver Parks and Recreation to change the plans,” she said. “I don’t understand why it was scrapped.”

The demand for court time keeps growing, and with Congress Park closed, the wait times to play are increasing at other parks.

“The numbers are unbelievable,” said A.J. Murray, who lives in the nearby Central Park neighborhood. “The wait time is unbelievable.”

Anath Gardenswartz, who normally plays at Congress Park, said she understands the noise can bother people. For her, though, the sport — with its laughter and friendship — is soothing. It gives her a break from caring for her aging parents and pitching in to help raise grandchildren.

It was easy to squeeze in a game at Congress Park, which is close to her home, when she finds a spare hour or two to relax.

“To not have a court is really sad for a sport that is so popular,” she said. “There has to be a solution. There are enough minds to find one.”

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