Fairbanks Ranch residents served with complaint over pickleball noise

The tennis and pickleball court in the Belinskys' backyard.
(Karen Billing)

Residents in the Fairbanks Ranch community have found themselves in a pickle due to a neighbor’s complaint to the homeowners association about the noise generated from pickleball being played on their backyard court.

For the last year, homeowners Larry and Judy Belinsky have been hoping for the HOA to find a resolution that allows them to keep playing the game they enjoy.

The Belinskys have lived in their Fairbanks Ranch home for 36 years. It was always a dream to have a tennis court in their backyard and they got it approved through the HOA in 1988, granted a variance given that there were no lights and that there were proper hedges for screening. The legal setback for the court per HOA rules is 25 feet and the court is located 35 feet from the property line with the complainant.

“Our tennis court gets a lot of use,” said Larry of the blue-hued court.

Judy has standing tennis matches with friends on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On average, she plays pickleball once every other week for about two hours. A 2020 inductee into the San Diego Tennis Hall of Fame and a former tennis coach at Canyon Crest Academy, Larry plays tennis about once a week and pickleball once a week.

At first, Larry didn’t even want to put pickleball lines on his court— a tennis purist, he was worried that it would ruin it. An expert court builder came out and painted “invisible pickleball lines” in a pale blue that blends into the rest of the court. A portable net is then rolled out for any pickleball matches.

The issue came to a head last year when their neighbor complained about their pickleball sessions.

“The amount of noise you, your husband and friends make while playing pickleball is absolutely unbearable for us as your neighbors. I’ve recorded the decibel level,” the neighbor wrote in a text message to the Belinskys. “We plan to take abrupt action to attempt to disallow this relatively new, loud sport in our neighborhood asap. This is one of those ‘what if everyone did’ cases that unfortunately neighbors like you could care less about….Please make an attempt to think about others beyond yourself.”

The complaint was then taken to the HOA level.

The neighbor did not respond to requests for comment.

Larry said the neighbors located to the north, west and east of their home have all written letters of approval that the noise does not bother them. The Belinskys did offer a compromise to install an acoustic fence sound barrier, a $7,000 investment of their own money, but said the neighbor did not agree. They have since taken the offer off the table.

“I don’t wish any ill will on anyone,” Larry said. “I’m more upset with our HOA than I am with our neighbor because they haven’t protected us.”

Through the HOA Manager Ken Hicks, Fairbanks Ranch declined to comment.

The Fairbanks Ranch HOA has a rule about noise exceeding 45 decibels: “No activity shall be undertaken or permitted upon any lot, which activity causes any sound, whether intermittent, recurrent or continuous, in excess of 45 decibels measured at any point on the boundary line of said lot. Decibel measurements shall be the average of at least 3 and at most 5 decibel readings by a qualified engineer.”

The HOA’s sound rules also prohibit power tools, speakers, bells or any other similar sound in excess of 65 decibels, measured from 100 feet away.

Judy pointed out that every day a resident violates the 45 decibel rule just by living—by starting up their car, rolling out the trash, mowing, blowing leaves or playing basketball. “The rule is archaic and needs to be amended to reflect the evolution of the community and the sounds that we actually make,” Judy said.

Following the neighbor’s complaint, the HOA told the Belinskys that they needed to remove the painted pickleball lines from their court as they were located within the setback. They were given 30 days to remove the lines but the HOA did not end up enforcing it as the Belinksys said it was determined they were not in the setback.

Then in July, the Belinskys were notified that an acoustical sound engineer would be coming out to measure the noise, at the HOA’s expense. Per the letter, an independent consultant would perform noise measurements for about five to 10 minutes to establish the ambient noise level without pickleball and then measurements would be taken with a pickleball session in play for 30 minutes.

The letter states that it is the responsibility of the homeowners to remain silent during the ambient noise measurements, as well as to provide people who will play pickleball during the activity measurement. “We would be required to act somewhat like circus performers,” Larry said.

Larry said they were not told what the consequences will be if they exceeded the decibel level with the independent testing. Pickleball is not forbidden in Fairbanks Ranch— one of the community tennis courts has even been converted into four pickleball courts.

“If we’re measured, everyone has to be measured,” said Judy, noting that the selective noise enforcement in this case feels unfair: “We all have to be treated equally in an HOA.”

Pickleball’s popularity has given rise to neighbor and community disputes throughout the country over the sport’s noise.

There are several factors that make pickleball a much louder sport than tennis, according to Amanda Levy, an audiologist with Levy Audiology in San Marcos who is also a pickleball player.

Tennis balls and racquets are made of soft materials—the flexible nylon of a tennis racket absorbs the vibration of the felt ball hitting the racquet. By contrast, a pickleball paddle is a flat, hard surface that doesn’t absorb the sound of a hit, Levy said. “Also the ball is made out of plastic so it makes a much louder sound than a fuzzy tennis ball hitting a tennis racquet,” she said. “It’s not a dangerous level of noise, it’s just not as muffled.”

“Pickleball is also never a singles game,” added Levy. “It’s very social and it’s very fast. Pickleball players tend to be more talkative than tennis players, and there are more people in a smaller space so there’s lots of talking and people having a good time.”

Levy noted that the 45-decibel limit in the HOA rules is quiet, given that conversational speech is about 55 decibels. Typically, 85 decibels is what is referenced for a safe level of noise—per the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, noise exposure becomes dangerous when an individual is exposed to 85 decibels or greater for eight hours or more. Levy said she thinks it’s fine to have a decibel rating listed in regulations but they should have specifics: “45 decibels seems pretty low... but I also think it’s important for neighbors to be respectful of their sound levels.”

Efforts can be made to reduce pickleball noise, she said, such as sound-absorbing panels on either side of a fence or the use of specialty equipment. And in the spirit of being a good sport, Levy always suggests neighbors try making a little of their own noise by joining in on a pickleball game for themselves.

In the neighboring Rancho Santa Fe Association, the HOA doesn’t have any of its own noise regulations on the books and defers to the county’s rules. San Diego County’s noise ordinance targets animal noise, mechanical equipment noise and construction noise: excessive construction noise is not permitted between the hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and none is allowed on Sundays or holidays. Nuisance noise falls within the San Diego County Sheriff’s jurisdiction of enforcement—including parties, loud music or loud vehicles.

This month, RSF Association Director Phil Trubey proposed that the Association explore a new regulation on noise due to experiences he’s heard from Covenant residents with early morning construction noise and yes, pickleball. Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Chief Mike Scaramella said they do receive quite a few noise calls in the Covenant, mostly during the daytime hours. He said residents usually comply and quiet down once they are contacted.

A year since the initial complaint was made regarding the pickleball noise, the Fairbanks Ranch HOA has not yet made a decision in the Belinskys’ case and it remains unresolved. The independent acoustic study has also yet to be scheduled.

The Belinskys have hired an attorney and said the situation has been upsetting, causing a lot of stress over the last year.

“It is so frustrating and it has taken on way too much space in our heads,” Larry said. In regards to making some noise about the private situation they find themselves in, he says: “The public needs to know what happens behind closed gates.”