Fairfax County could designate different times and days for when tennis and pickleball players can use its shared courts.
That is one of the changes under consideration by the Fairfax County Park Authority after its board approved a pickleball study report in December that highlighted concerns about the two sports competing for limited court space.
“This information would be posted onsite and is aimed at reduced conflicts between players of both popular sports,” Park Authority spokesperson Judy Pedersen said by email.
Intended to gauge demand for new facilities and illuminate existing issues in the county, the pickleball study kicked off with an online survey in December 2020.
The survey ultimately drew over 1,800 responses, around 600 of which mentioned locations where people experienced conflict between pickleball use and another recreational activities, particularly tennis.
Respondents reported encountering often crowded courts, and one person recalled being told by a tennis player at Kemper Park in Oakton that the courts were for “tennis only,” even though the pickleball group had eight players.
In response to the sport’s growing popularity, Fairfax County has added 19 pickleball courts to existing tennis courts over the last 18 months. In November, two pickleball-only courts opened at Wakefield Park in Annandale.
With those additions, the FCPA now has 52 outdoor courts outfitted for pickleball, on top of six indoor courts in its recreation centers — a total similar to other similarly sized jurisdictions, according to the report.
However, the report also noted that the park authority has fewer facilities with six or more dedicated pickleball courts compared to other providers.
It recommended that the county create at least two pickleball-only facilities with at least six courts for large group drop-in play and tournaments, either by repurposing underutilized facilities or building new ones.
The FCPA is already looking at Lewinsville Park in McLean as a possible site for adding pickleball courts or converting the existing tennis courts into shared-use facilities.
Site constraints, the proximity of other facilities, and accessibility for populous areas in the county are among the factors that the county is taking into account when deciding potential court locations, according to Pedersen.
“Although we may potentially use park bond dollars in the future for the design and construction of pickleball-only facilities that could be used by larger groups, these projects would compete with the many other Park Authority projects, initiatives and capital needs of the entire park system,” Pedersen said.
Pickleball continues to grow in popularity, and Fairfax County is looking for ways to accommodate a rising demand for local, dedicated facilities.
A draft report that the county released last week highlights the conflict that pickleball has experienced with other recreational activities. It also provides strategies for how to minimize or eliminate problems when adding pickleball courts, especially in spaces shared with other sports like tennis and basketball.
“A key finding of the study was that the potential for conflict between sport courts exists when providing shared-use courts or repurposing courts to sports for which they were not initially constructed, such as tennis or basketball,” the report said.
People can comment on the draft report through Oct. 1 by email and phone and at a virtual meeting scheduled for next Tuesday (Sept. 14).
Based an online survey that Fairfax County Park Authority carried out from December 2020 to January 2021, the report says respondents have experienced conflicts with tennis players using available courts, thereby limiting their use for pickleball.
One person said conflict “is too strong a word, but [we] occasionally have to change plans when courts are already taken by tennis players.” Another person reported a tennis player saying the courts were for tennis only.
The county’s report says both tennis and pickleball got a boost across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as people sought activities that can be played while maintaining advised social distancing.
The number of tennis players increased 22% to 21.64 million in the U.S. from 2019 to 2020, according to the U.S. Tennis Association. Meanwhile, pickleball grew 21.3% to 4.2 million players during that same time frame, according to the USA Pickleball Association.
In the Fairfax County Park Authority’s survey, which generated over 1,800 responses, approximately 78% of people said they played pickleball in the last year, and most played a few times a week or month.
The county’s report said local participation in pickleball mirrors regional and national trends, and more publicly maintained courts have already started to emerge during the pandemic.
“In the 18 months prior to this report, 19 pickleball courts were added to existing tennis courts and the two pickleball-only courts were constructed, representing a 68 percent net increase in the number of pickleball courts,” the report noted.
In the report, county staff shared strategies for identifying where pickleball spaces could be added, either by constructing new courts dedicated solely for pickleball or by repurposing or sharing existing courts.
Park authority officials say that a 2024 park bond or other funding sources could assist with designing and constructing a pickleball-only facility that has at least six courts.
For transforming existing spaces into shared or dedicated courts for pickleball, the county points to a phased approach adopted by Montgomery County as a best practice “that has demonstrated success in the Washington, D.C. metro region.”
The process involves placing pickleball court lines on a court temporarily, observing the space for two to four weeks, and noting any conflicts or reported issues as well as player usage trends before either removing the temporarily lines or making them permanent for shared use with continued monitoring.
“Prior to the introduction of pickleball at a court, or prior to the removal of nonpickleball play at a court, decision makers should evaluate a facility’s current utilization, area service levels, and potential reasons for under-utilization such as demand, location, access, or maintenance,” the report said. “It is inappropriate to change the use of a court if such a change would result in a significant reduction of adopted service levels or conflicts between sports that cannot be minimized or mitigated.”
The report also found that Fairfax County is comparable to other areas in terms of the overall number of pickleball courts it provides per capita, but only two facilities are dedicated to pickleball, while 48 outdoor courts are shared with tennis players.
However, pickleball players here said the county didn’t offer enough opportunities to play the sport, such as courts dedicated solely to pickleball or groupings of pickleball courts to support many concurrent games, so county staff determined that one solution is to strategically locate pickleball courts together to better facilitate group and tournament play, Park Authority long range planning chief Ryan Stewart said in a statement.
As part of those concerns, many people still expressed dissatisfaction with how Fairfax County’s development of facilities compared to other jurisdictions.
“Of area jurisdictions, only Prince William County has, to date, provided purpose-built, dedicated pickleball courts. This eight-court facility was often cited in the public survey as players’ preferred venue,” the report said. “Montgomery Parks is currently converting its tennis courts at Bauer Lane Local Park to six pickleball-only courts with lighting.”
County staff said the report’s recommendations should be considered in conjunction with ongoing community engagement from participants, neighbors, and other stakeholders.
“The Park Authority has valued the contributions of the community of players and remains committed to ongoing dialog as these recommendations are implemented and as new opportunities emerge to address growing demand,” the report said.
The draft report stems from a formal review of pickleball players’ needs that the county launched in the summer of 2019. The county expects to finalize the report next month after the latest round of public comments, and the park authority board could approve it in November.
Photo via Lauren Bryan/Flickr