With approval from town commissioners this summer, more pickleball access could be coming to Longboat Key.
But the four courts recently recommended for approval by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission behind the gates of Bay Isles on the property of the Longboat Key Club are privately financed and planned for the use of members and guests.
Still, though, the project would bring the total number of pickleball courts at the club to eight and the total court count on the island to more than 50, according to the town, including the three open-to-anyone facilities at Bayfront Park and a hybrid tennis court there that can host two additional public pickleball courts when it’s not functioning as a tennis court.
As the sport grows locally, town leaders say there is no more open space for additional public courts and not much appetite for public financing or conversion of facilities for pickleball enthusiasts’ use.
That’s not to say that access to the sport isn’t growing in neighboring communities.
At GT Bray Recreation Center in Bradenton, 20 covered pickleball courts are expected to open soon at the facility on 33 Avenue Drive.
Twelve courts are under construction at the Pompano Trailhead of the expanded Legacy Trail in Sarasota. Completion is expected in early summer.
Six courts are under construction at Longwood Park in the north end of Sarasota County. Completion is expected this summer.
More than 20 courts are in various stages of planning and development throughout Sarasota County.
On Longboat Key, though, the question is often one of public versus private facilities.
Town leaders said they received no opposition to the Key Club’s proposal to build four pickleball courts directly west of the Tennis Gardens, and neither has the club, said Managing Director Rick Konsavage.
“They’re really anticipating this because it does get crowded like the town courts do. I mean, there’s millions of people waiting to get on the courts in the morning, ”he said of the club’s existing pickleball facility near the Moorings. “It’s hard to do it with four courts. It’ll really relieve things for us. “
The club in 2019 converted tennis courts near Portofino in the Marina Village into four pickleball courts, expanding access to the game because demand there had outstripped supply of the club’s original double-lined tennis courts.
At the time, the club said the measure was what it could do given location limitations.
Konsavage said that since then the club has looked for opportunities and locations on its property to expand without cutting into the Tennis Gardens’ 20 Har-tru courts. The proposal for four new courts is the result of that search.
The club had to come before the town’s Planning and Zoning Board in mid-April because the proposal to build the courts is a deviation from the original planned-unit development, approved in 1975 and subsequently modified several times.
Although the recommendation for approval was unanimous, at least one member of the board wanted to make sure that proposal sat well with the residents across the waterway on Sabal Cove Lane.
Member Jay Plager recalled a tiff over pickleball courts at the Bird Key Yacht Club in 2017.
“The neighbors raised such a fuss that they gave it up because pickleball courts do have a very distinct sound, as you know,” he said.
Mike Rissman, vice president of engineering with George F. Young Inc., said the courts adjacent to the tennis facility are in consistent use but he didn’t expect any sound issues.
“I know one of the complaints about pickleball courts is the funny noise the ball makes when it hits the racket or the paddle, but I don’t really anticipate the sound is really going to travel any more than the tennis courts,” he said .
Parking at the Tennis Gardens site remains within the town’s requirements even with the additional courts, and any trees taken down as part of the construction process will be replaced at least on a one-to-one basis, or two-to-one in the case of a replacement tree that’s smaller than the original.
Konsavage said the club once considered expanding the marina site, to no avail.
“I think the town itself is struggling with the same lack of capacity versus demand,” said board Chair David Green.
Capacity vs. demand
The issue of public pickleball pops up from time to time as fans of the sport become more deeply involved on their own and interested in the social aspect of the game, which leads to more participation, particularly during morning hours.
The town’s three regulation courts and two hybrid courts are heavily used, but in a Town Commission planning retreat, leaders said there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to build beyond that which is already there.
Besides the active sports facilities there, the park offers a place for dogs and dog owners to mingle and an open area popular for public events and private occasions.
“It’s going to keep coming up,” Mayor Ken Schneier said.
“I think you’re probably at capacity at Bayfront Park, unless you change the nature of that park,” Town Manager Tom Harmer said. “That’s just my personal opinion.”
The Public Tennis Center was expanded with the help of a private group that donated to the cause. But even if a pickleball version of such an effort took hold, an idea originally championed by former Commissioner Jack Daly, the location of such an expansion might be problematic. “The only reason the Tennis Center expanded with courts 7 through 10 was because the Friends of Tennis funded it and built it,” Commissioner BJ Bishop said. “So, until the pickleball community is ready to invest in pickleball, I’m not dying to give away everyone else’s money.”
Harmer, referring to the number of courts available islandwide, wondered when further expansion stops making sense. “At some point, what’s the town’s responsibility to build another six or 10 or 12 courts? There’s no land that we have that is suitable to go build pickleball courts. “
In 2019, the town did for a time consider pickleball courts in the area near the Longboat Key Library, which could again be considered if the county and town agree on a Sarasota-run facility at the Town Center Green.
But even then, the issue of noise was a complicating factor with residents nearby and tennis players, and sound-deadening screens were discussed.
“So, all that is out there,” Harmer said, conceding that the pickleball community will likely keep advocating for expansion. “I’m not sure there’s a town responsibility to provide a regional center on Longboat Key. We’re a small, residential island. There’s a limited capacity, and we have a mix of events, whether it’s kayaking or dog walking or tennis or pickleball or basketball, if you just take over one park and turn it over for pickleball, I’m not sure that’s what we want to do.”
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