Needham in ‘Pickle’ Over NHS Tennis Courts

April 3, 2024
• A proposal to renovate old tennis courts and construct new ones at Needham High School came to the Planning Board Tuesday, where abutting neighbors shared concerns over litter, noise and pickleball.

The town, in partnership with Activitas, an engineering and architecture firm, suggests fixing the four defunct courts on the property and building four courts on the adjacent open grass field. All eight new courts would be made of post-tension concrete, which Park and Recreation Director Stacey Mulroy said carries a 25-year warranty and will involve little maintenance.

Due to extensive cracking, the NHS tennis teams can’t use the courts — they all play at either Newman Elementary School or Mills Field, Mulroy said. The current courts were installed in 2006 after the NHS renovation and are open to both the school community and residents.

A large crack spreads across half of an NHS tennis court. (Cameron Morsberger)

“Having four additional courts does two things: It allows the teams to practice together. It also allows them to finish their matches significantly sooner,” Mulroy said, referring to post-season games. “You need at least five courts to finish a match so that the next team can go on.”

The project is expected to cost about $2.6 million, with $1 million coming from the Athletic Facility Stabilization Fund. The Community Preservation Committee successfully gained approval for $50,000 at the 2022 Spring Town Meeting to cover design costs.

Tennis, however, was not on residents’ minds on Tuesday. The courts also provide a prime location for another sport: Pickleball.

The wildly popular racket sport, which is played with a wiffle ball, has quickly taken over communities and simultaneously divided them. The sound of the ball hitting the racket has been compared to the sound of popcorn popping in the microwave, meaning it’s much louder than tennis. And the sport is played on just half of a tennis court, meaning twice as many games can be played at once.

Julie Dananberg, an abutter on Rosemary Street, already hears pickleballers on the NHS courts because players have lined two of the four tennis courts for the game. Dananberg herself has played pickleball, but living near the courts subjects her and her family to “a really, really loud, harsh sound.”

Two of the four tennis courts at Needham High School are lined for pickleball in blue. In their current state, the courts are not used by the school tennis teams. (Cameron Morsberger)

“We hear the train, we hear the high school events, but pickleball noise is another beast,” Dananberg said.

Adding just one extra court instead of four and strictly barring pickleball from being played there could help, Dananberg said. She said she’d also like to have the town conduct a noise study.

Linda Kilburn-Peterson, who also lives on Rosemary Street, said some people abuse court privileges by playing late at night, especially in the summer months. Though lighting isn’t included in the proposal, Kilburn-Peterson said the security light on the gym shines on the courts, allowing for court use at unreasonable times. She added that she has “been woken up by pickle noises before.”

The loud pickleball sound has become a quality of life issue across the nation, Rosemary Street resident John O’Leary said. He suggested the town explicitly ban pickleball, consider adding only one or two new courts, creating larger setbacks and installing “appropriate sight and sound barriers.”

“We really think this is reasonable. It will meet the town’s needs, the high school’s needs,” O’Leary said. “When I look at this design, the thing that I come away with — it just doesn’t seem neighborly.”

Jonathan Charwick from Activitas said the current plans do not call for pickleball striping on any courts. Chris Gerstel, who chairs the Park and Recreation Commission, said during the meeting that he would consider prohibiting pickleball from the courts, but it would be part of a larger conversation with the commission. The town is also currently conducting a feasibility study to identify other locations for pickleball courts, Mulroy said.

Ellen Dudley, a Webster Street resident, bought her home 20 years ago, before the tennis courts were built. When the courts were under construction, Dudley said they dealt with mice and water issues, and they now face a 12-foot chain link fence.

Their proximity to the courts, and the resulting mitigation efforts they’ve undertaken, have “really been an inconvenience,” Dudley said.

“We have dozens and dozens and dozens of balls in our yard all summer… We’re not here to be your ball boy,” Dudley said.

At a CPC meeting last month, boys tennis coach Drew Lawrence spoke in favor of the plan, but said orienting the new courts to face north-south “is much more desirable.” Currently, renderings have the new courts slightly skewed to better fit the field space and maintain an adequate zoning setback.

A grassy field sides beside the four tennis courts at NHS. A proposal suggests installing four new courts on the field. (Cameron Morsberger)

Lawrence said the team can’t host individual tournaments until the school has additional courts, and pickleball players complicate matters.

Girls junior varsity tennis coach Derrek Shulman said they’re at a “competitive disadvantage” now.

“It’s also unfortunate and frankly sometimes embarrassing when other teams have to come and do multiple bus drop-offs and wait for a single match to be finished, which can be an hour and a half, two hours longer,” Shulman said to the CPC.

Representatives from the NHS tennis teams did not comment during the Planning Board hearing.

Project leaders hope to gain approval at the upcoming Spring Town Meeting on May 6, but board members cast doubt on the current timeframe, especially given the number of concerns residents voiced and possibly alterations to the proposal.

“I’m worried that this whole [pathway] to Town Meeting is — you’re now in a pickle,” board Chair Adam Block said.

Planning Board member Paul Alpert, a former CPC member, expressed his frustration with the plan’s proponents, questioning why they took several months to present to the Planning Board after applying for CPC funding in the fall. Not including the board and the neighbors until this stage of the process may ultimately end up sending the project back to square one.

“If you can’t convince me that you absolutely, positively need eight courts, I want to see a plan for six,” Alpert said, “and I don’t care if you have to wait till next year.”

The Planning Board public hearing on the project was initially scheduled for March 19.

The restoration and construction of the courts follow a recent trend of improvements to athletic facilities in Needham. McLeod Field was recently converted into a new softball field, and the town intends to renovate Claxton Field in the coming years.

The public hearing will continue April 24.

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