For the second time in 16 months, the Wilmette Zoning Board of Appeals has said no to a Wilmette Park District-backed recommendation regarding paddle tennis courts at West Park.
With the 3-2 vote at its regular meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 16, zoning commissioners will send a proposal to extend playing hours, among other changes, to the Wilmette Village Board with a negative recommendation.
The Wilmette Park District’s proposal seeks to modify portions of the special use ordinance, which was approved — with hesitancy — by the Village Board in April 2022, allowing the district to construct two additional paddle tennis courts and expand its warming hut.
Steve Wilson, the park district’s executive director, explained to the zoning commissioners that the district wants to have uniform operational hours for both league and non-league play, in addition to changing landscaping and lighting requirements.
The district wants a 10:30 p.m. end time each day. Currently, league play, which occurs Monday through Friday during a portion of the year, is allowed until 11 p.m and all other play until 10 p.m.
“While 10:30 p.m. is earlier than the majority of facilities that are participants in the paddle league … we are now trying to create a simple and consistent schedule,” he said. “We believe that a consistent 10:30 p.m. end time for lights on the courts will achieve this goal, still satisfactorily facilitate league play, and also be responsive to concerns raised by residents living in close proximity to the facility.”
The park district made their request in January, about eight months after the Village approved its current paddle tennis schedule.
Late-night play is one of many ongoing concerns shared by neighbors to the West Park facility, which the park district was hoping to expand to meet a demand for paddle tennis and pickleball.
Responding to neighbor concerns, the Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously recommended denial of the original expansion proposal, leading the Park Board to present a scaled-back version of its plan to the Village Board.
When testifying to village trustees last year, Park District officials stated the only reason it was only requesting extended hours, 11 p.m., for league play and shared no intentions to change other hours.
“It is clearly our intent only to request the later time in situations where there’s another governing body, if you will, determining the time of play,” said Mike Murdock, then Park Board president in April 2022. “So any activity controlled by the park district, any of our in-house leagues, any of our lessons, any of our activities, we will comply and have the lights off by 10 o’clock.”
At the Aug. 16 meeting, zoning commissioners questioned Wilson about the park district’s proposals, including several asking about the “lookback” provisions that the Wilmette Village Board attached to the special-use permit.
Trustees added the provisions as a way to check on requirements of the permit, such as lighting, landscaping and hours of operations. Zoning Board Chairperson Reinhard Schneider asked if the village did not trust the district to follow through on its promises.
“I believe that would be, most likely, the driving force, and a desire to make sure they were being responsive to the neighborhood concerns,” Wilson said.
Commissioner Karl Camillucci questioned the timing of the park district’s requests, specifically for its hopes to remove a lookback on its lighting mitigation efforts. The park district plans to install new lights with improved shielding and lower-intensity bulbs.
“Why remove this condition now?” he asked Wilson. “If these lights are going to be so effective at mitigating glare, why not put them up, see how they work, (have) staff sign off on them, you’re home free.”
“We can certainly do that,” Wilson said.
He later added, “We are seeking to have as many lookback provisions removed from the special use permit, as they are not common in zoning applications.”
Commissioners also heard from six residents in opposition to the park district’s request. Nearly all of those in opposition objected to the 10:30 p.m. ending time, stating that they believed the games should end earlier.
Matthew Hirschfeld, who lives on Laramie Avenue, bordering West Park, asked for a 10 p.m. ending time.
“I’ve played in sports leagues all over the country,” he said. “I’ve never been in a league that let games go beyond 9:55 … (at) 10:00, lights are out. Going to 10:30 is just inconsiderate to the surrounding neighbors, and I ask the park district to be a little more considerate to us, and for those who do go to bed at a quarter to 10.”
Commissioner Maria Urban said that while she could support removing the lookback provisions and the proposals surrounding lighting and landscaping, she could not support the change in hours.
She noted that the restrictions on game play were put in by the Village Board in response to the “outcry” from neighbors, and that they continue to object to the times when games are allowed.
“If the Wilmette Park District truly wanted to be a good neighbor, its proposal would have been to go back to the 10 p.m. hour of closing that it used to have,” Urban said.
Though he ultimately voted to approve the park district’s proposal, Commissioner Didier Glattard admitted he was “kind of torn” on the issue. His biggest concern was that the park district was asking for a change so soon after it received its approval.
“I don’t personally think that (this) change is that bad, but I do have a problem with the fact that it was recently approved and now it needs to be changed,” he said. “The homework wasn’t done before, and all of a sudden something’s changed.”
When it became clear that the board was going to give a proposal a negative recommendation, Schneider, who voted in favor of it, asked Wilson if he still wanted the board to proceed with its vote. Wilson said he did.
The Village Board is expected to discuss the proposal and its negative recommendation at its Sept. 12 regular meeting.
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.