Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / maxriesgo
Paddle tennis started in the late 1920s as an outlet for tennis enthusiasts seeking to keep their skills sharp during New England’s long, cold winters. Instead of hanging up their racquets for the season, these sportsmen created a new game involving a smaller court, wire fencing, and—most importantly—a heat source to melt the ice and keep the players warm. Paddle tennis, or as it is sometimes referred to, platform tennis, has grown in popularity over the years, with new public and private facilities opening across the country. Most facilities are located in cold-weather climates.
Paddle tennis is similar to traditional tennis, although on a smaller, faster, and more social scale. The court is roughly one-third the size of a tennis court, and elevated above the ground. Heaters are placed under the court to prevent ice from forming on the playing surface. Instead of grass or clay, the surface is made of wood or aluminum that is coated in gritty paint to provide traction for players. Matches are either singles or doubles play (doubles play is more common), and players use paddles instead of racquets to strike a solid rubber ball. Small warming buildings are commonly constructed to shelter spectators and players before, during, and after matches.
The increasing popularity of the sport presents park districts an opportunity to generate additional revenue by expanding services during the off-season. Because paddle tennis has only recently caught on outside of New England, however, many communities are unfamiliar with this activity and unprepared to accommodate this sport. Few local zoning codes address where paddle tennis courts may be built, how many hours they may operate, and whether the courts may be lit for nighttime play.
This regulatory uncertainty can catch interested park districts by surprise, ultimately adding time and costs to projects. Park districts should understand how zoning officials regulate these facilities and what concerns are commonly raised by the public. As always, park officials should work closely with the local zoning authority to ensure that all questions are addressed.
Many zoning codes require paddle tennis courts to comply with setback requirements applicable to accessory structures like patios, decks, and detached garages. Generally speaking, this means that a court must not encroach onto a property’s front yard setback, and must remain a specific distance (typically 5 feet to 10 feet) from the side and rear property lines. Some communities also enforce minimum separation requirements between paddle tennis facilities and other structures (commonly 5 feet) to prevent fire, safety, and accessibility issues. Park districts should take these regulations into account when evaluating potential locations for paddle tennis facilities.
In addition to zoning considerations, proposals to construct paddle tennis courts immediately adjacent to residential neighborhoods are often met with objections. A careful site-selection process can eliminate many of these objections altogether. Park districts should strongly consider constructing platform tennis facilities near parking lots and existing recreation facilities, like playgrounds, tennis or other outdoor courts, and concession stands. Many existing recreation areas already generate traffic and noise well beyond what is created by paddle tennis facilities. If a paddle tennis court must be located near residences, a park district should install heavy, non-deciduous landscaping to provide a visual and sound buffer between the court and the neighboring residences.
Hours Of Operation
Similar to other park facilities, park districts should establish hours of operation for paddle tennis facilities. On weekdays, the facilities generally experience the highest usage during mornings (9 a.m. to noon) and after the close of business (6 p.m. to 10 p.m.). Demand on weekends tends to be more constant. Most paddle tennis facilities include lighting to allow courts to be used at night, which is especially important for winter
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / jacklyric
matches. If a court is located adjacent to a residential neighborhood, a park district can expect the number of complaints about noise and light pollution to increase the later the facility is open to the public. To address this, the park district can enforce an end time that is already applied to other recreation activities in the community. If residents already accept 10 p.m. as the end time for youth baseball games, it will be challenging for objectors to argue that all paddle tennis courts must close earlier. In addition, complaints about lighting can frequently be addressed by limiting the height of light poles to 20 feet, installing proper shielding around light standards, shutting the lights off immediately upon closing (typically via timer), connecting the lights to motion sensors, or requiring players to pay a fee to operate the lights (similar to how parking meters work).
Complaints frequently arise concerning the parking associated with paddle tennis facilities. Because doubles play is common, a minimum of two parking spaces per court is generally necessary. If a court is located in a larger park with other parking facilities, the park district may be able to take advantage of off-setting peak parking demand. Paddle tennis courts are frequently used at night during the winter when most other portions of a park are not being used. Accordingly, a park district may be able to avoid having to construct additional parking facilities if local zoning authorities can be convinced that the existing parking supply—much of which presumably is not used during the winter months—is sufficient for a paddle tennis facility. Reviewing parking usage during different seasons is a good way to quantify how much parking is available to serve a paddle tennis facility.
Many zoning codes classify paddle tennis facilities as accessory uses. Consequently, the courts typically cannot be the only use (i.e., the “primary” use) located on a property. This directly influences where a park district can construct paddle tennis courts. For instance, it is unlikely that courts can be constructed in small pocket parks where there is not room for other recreational activities (not to mention space to park cars). Therefore, courts are most commonly found in larger park settings that are better equipped to handle matches, events, and other large gatherings. A park district may be able to apply for a zoning variance to construct paddle tennis courts at a smaller park, but most variance applications require public hearings and, in some cases, final approval by the village board.
It is common for players to shake off the cold with a post-game alcoholic beverage in the paddle tennis warming hut. A decision will have to be made about the use of alcohol at paddle tennis facilities. Many park districts prohibit carrying or consuming alcoholic beverages on their property. If alcohol is to be allowed, an individual district will have to obtain a liquor license from local authorities, even if the district is not selling alcohol. Many municipalities require businesses to obtain a bring-your-own-license (aka B.Y.O. license) before allowing the public to consume alcohol on the premises. The same rules apply to park districts. Contact the local liquor commissioner early in the process to determine what specific regulations apply. Park districts should also contact their insurance providers to discuss any coverage implications associated with allowing liquor consumption on district property. Requiring all participants to execute liability waivers that protect a park district from claims arising from alcohol consumption is also a good idea.
Paddle tennis presents a unique opportunity for park districts to expand their cold-weather programming and generate additional revenue. Carefully evaluating the characteristics and potential requirements of these facilities can help park districts avoid getting bogged down with resident complaints, public hearings, delays, and additional costs.
Gregory W. Jones is an associate with Ancel Glink Diamond Bush DiCianni & Krafthefer, P.C. He counsels park districts, municipalities and elected officials on a variety of corporate matters, including land use, planning, contracts and economic development. Jones is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and has served as a city planner for several communities.
Robert K. Bush is an equity partner and the President of Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCianni & Krafthefer. He represents numerous Illinois local governments in both a corporate and litigation setting and works closely with the firm's many Illinois local government self-insurance pools. He has been recognized for a number of years as an Illinois Super Lawyer for his excellence in practice in the local governmental law area.