Chapel Hill is in a pickle over parks and rec spending. Now AOC is paying attention

In a mounting turf dispute between Chapel Hill pickleball enthusiasts and tennis players, one of Congress’s loudest liberal voices has turned her eyes to the ongoing saga.

Holding signs reading “We are many,” “We are diverse,” and “We need a place,” concerned citizens filed Monday into the Chapel Hill Public Library, prepared to make their voices heard about the future of pickleball in the town, according to a photo posted on Twitter.

After Melody Joy Kramer, a Chapel Hill resident and a writer with the Triangle Blog Blog, tweeted a photo of the scene, plenty of people weighed in on the evolving drama.

And that included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

“The way I clicked this link so fast,” she tweeted in response Thursday night, further amplifying the debate to her massive online following.

By Friday, her hot-take had generated plenty of likes and retweets, with most wondering how Ocasio-Cortez stumbled into the recreation drama in a state far outside her district.

“Pickleball Activism + Chapel Hill + AOC = most unexpected thread of the day,” one person tweeted with another adding, “Aoc staying current on Chapel Hill pickleball politics.”

Ocasio-Cortez, 32, has been in Congress since 2019 and is running for re-election.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2022.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2022.

What is the pickleball debate?

Pickleball is the rapidly growing sport combines tennis, badminton and table tennis and has a passionate following in the Triangle.

On Monday, the expanding tribe of die-hard pickleballers showed up in force to a Chapel Hill council work session to advocate for a greater share of Parks and Recreation funding. Through the American Rescue Plan Act, the Town of Chapel Hill has allocated an additional $3.5 million to expanding and revitalizing local recreational facilities.

One of the slides from Monday’s meeting showed the bulk of those funds would go toward repairing the artificial turf of Cedar Falls Park, the town’s primary soccer venue; an adaptive playground and a splash pad, both firsts for the area.

However, pickleballers were upset to see only $400,000 set aside for building new courts. The town currently has no designated pickleball courts, leaving players to share space at local tennis courts. A proposal put forward by local pickleball players in March stated there are over 1,500 players in Chapel Hill.

In addition to the rising popularity of pickleball, the need for new courts is also fueled by ongoing disputes with the local tennis community over space.

Last spring, pickleballers petitioned the local government for shared court use with tennis players at Ephesus Park. The proposal stated that roughly 150 people play pickleball there every day and provided a shared court schedule to accommodate the need.

Friends of Chapel Hill Public Tennis Courts, a tennis stakeholder group in the area, responded to the proposal, stating their desire to reject the space share, primarily due to the “noise levels” involved in a game of pickleball.

“Tennis and PB should never be co-located due to the loud noise level from PB,” the response said. “Google ‘pickleball tennis noise’ to see how even neighborhoods are starting to rebel against the loud noise level.”

The future of pickleball

To decide the fate of the Ephesus Park courts, the Parks and Recreation Department put forward a survey in June and July to determine the future of the courts.

“Parks and Recreation has continued to listen to the various viewpoints around the shared use of tennis courts,” according to the town website.

The survey had over 400 responses, the majority of which came from pickleball players. However, the Parks and Recreation Department did not make a final decision on the matter. They passed the decision-making process to the Parks, Greenways and Recreation Commission.

On Sept. 20, the commissioners heard from representatives from both the tennis and pickleball communities.

The commissioners decided to explore alternate surfaces where pickleball can be played throughout the town and will be conducting a broader survey on the matter in the coming months.