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Neighbors battle over use of backyard sport courts

by: VERN UYETAKE - Zach Holmes, 10, practices his pitch at the sport court installed at his family home.A multiyear dispute is heating up again in West Linn. The issue — kids playing in their own backyards.

From kids yelling to bouncing balls to bright lights late at night and stray balls flying into neighboring yards, the simple act of kids playing can seem disruptive. But is there a way to measure and regulate those variables? That is the question the planning commission is attempting to answer.

The West Linn Planning Commission recently held two work sessions exploring the impact sport courts have on neighbors, including noise, lighting, safety and stormwater runoff.

Since 2010, the city has been hearing routinely from two different households with complaints relating to the noise and disruption of kids playing sports on private property.

Mindi and Tim McGill, who live on Remington Drive, have repeatedly called the police because of the light and noise and balls flying over their fence from neighbors Julie and Ryan Holmes, whose home on Kensington Court abuts the McGills.

On Aug. 9, police issued a citation to Ryan Holmes for playing a loud game of basketball at 9:22 p.m., which comes with a hefty fine of $500. The city’s noise ordinance goes into effect at 7 p.m. This is the family’s second citation; the first issued Aug. 26, 2011, which was dismissed in court.

Bruce and Mary Swanson, who live on Fields Drive, say they are dodging balls that routinely come over their fence and hit their home from the neighbors next door.

Both the Swansons and the McGills have asked the city council to deem sport courts a nuisance and want the planning commission to create code regulations for future sport courts.

However, some residents, like the Holmeses, want to keep the freedom to play with their children in their own yards.

by: SUBMITTED - The light from a sport court shines into the bedroom window of Tim and Mindi McGill, who are urging the city to change its regulations regarding sport courts.

Battle over balls, lights at play

Holmes, who has five children ages 12 and younger and another one on the way, installed a sport court with outdoor lighting in his backyard about three years ago. He said it was a place for his young children to play safely.

“We knew we had a big family. We wanted them to have a place to go outside and play,” Holmes said.

The Holmeses’ house borders six other houses, but they only hear complaints from the McGills, who have routinely called police to the house for making noise after 7 p.m., sometimes up to three times a week.

“The noise ordinance is very vague. Unfortunately, they have used that ordinance against us,” Holmes said.

The McGills, who have a 14-year-old daughter, moved into their home almost three years ago, just prior to the Holmeses installing their sport court.

Though the McGills contend they don’t have a problem with children playing outside, it is the level of noise and disruption and the light they are concerned with. Tim McGill routinely has to get up at 2 or 3 a.m. for work, and the outdoor light that floods his bedroom prevents him from sleeping.

Holmes said the first five or so times the police showed up at his home his children were upset and crying. Now, however, he fears his children have lost sensitivity to police officers and the role they play. “They are wondering why the police are making them stop playing basketball,” he said.

Police were called to the Holmeses’ home Aug. 9 at 9:22 p.m. for a noise complaint. An officer collected a bag of more than 100 balls that had dates written on them from when they landed in the McGills’ yard, along with a bag of broken water balloons and a popsicle stick.

“The police have better things to do than deal with garbage like this,” said Tim McGill. “That really weighs heavily on us. It’s created a lot of stress in our home.”

According to the police report, the officer entered the McGills’ home and could easily hear the noise coming from the Holmeses’ backyard and could see how the outdoor light lit up the McGills’ bedroom.

The officer issued a citation for violating the noise ordinance, to which Ryan Holmes has pleaded innocent and will go to court for on Sept. 13.

“My issue is that it’s a misuse of the (noise) ordinance,” Holmes said. “The goal (of the ordinance) is not to force families inside at 7 p.m.”

by: VERN UYETAKE - Ryan Holmes plays basketball with his kids and a neighbor, Brook Pene, 11, on the sport court at his home on Kensington Drive. Neighbors have complained about the noise and the light associated with the court.

Officials hear neighbors’ pleas

Mindi McGill spoke to the city council during its Aug. 13 meeting, asking the council to deem sport courts a nuisance.

“We do not have an issue whatsoever with kids playing in their backyard. That’s not our issue. That’s not our problem,” she said.

Mindi McGill raised concern about being disturbed by the bright outdoor light, the “loud yelling, screaming, balls bouncing.”

“We feel the number of balls coming over creates a hazard for our family,” she said. “It’s baseballs, softballs, tennis balls, any kind of ball — you name it, it’s coming over.

“It’s created a nuisance that we can no longer enjoy the comfort of our home sitting outside and even sitting in the house because of the noise that is coming through after 7 p.m.”

The Swansons also spoke at the city council meeting.

“It has demonstrably compromised our quality of life,” Mary Swanson said.

The Holmeses and the McGills went through mediation with the city a year ago with no results, according to Holmes. The McGills want the Holmeses to stop making noise after 7 p.m. and to turn off their outdoor light, and the Holmeses want to spend time outside playing with their children.

“We just want people to act responsibly,” said Tim McGill. “Be considerate of neighbors.”

The Swansons also pleaded their case to the planning commission during its July 18 work session. After listening to the residents and hearing a report from city staff, the commissioners all agreed to move forward with looking at creating new regulations for sport courts.

by: SUBMITTED - Large lights, such as this one, are often installed as part of home sport courts in West Linn.

New regulations in the works

City staff looked at other cities with sport court regulations in states from New Jersey to California and found a wide range of restrictions. Staff zeroed in on noise, safety, lighting and stormwater runoff as the major impacts.

Noise could be addressed by limiting the size and number of courts and users, requiring sound-absorbing materials and buffering, and setting restrictions based on lot sizes.

Safety measures could include fencing, setbacks and screening.

Lighting could be restricted by the height of the pole, the number of lights and the wattage, as well as set hours of use.

Stormwater runoff could be addressed with total impervious area and lot coverage calculations to show proper runoff and infiltration.

Currently, the city has no definition for sport courts. A sport court could range from a basketball hoop in a driveway to full-fledged tennis courts.

Because new regulations would not affect existing situations, the planning commission recently sent a letter to the city council, urging the council to consider declaring lighting and noisy recreational activity a nuisance under West Linn municipal code. The code, in part, states: “All activities or man-made conditions on a property that have an unreasonable adverse effect on other properties may be declared a nuisance by the Council and abated as provided in sections 5.400 to 5.530.”

In an Aug. 9 memo from City Manager Chris Jordan to the council, he said the city has not previously declared sport courts as a nuisance as they don’t meet all of the definitions of a nuisance, such as directly affecting public health or the environment (e.g., animals with communicable diseases or water pollution), there are no visible items effecting aesthetics or the community (e.g., abandoned cars) and sport courts are not attractive nuisances that could cause harm (e.g., empty freezers).

Jordan went on to explain the sport courts at issue were installed legally and are not under any regulation.

“We are concerned that taking action to essentially outlaw or significantly limit children’s recreational activities within their own yards would not be a positive statement about West Linn’s community values,” he wrote.

“The city staff at this point in time will not arrest kids and families for playing in their yards,” Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt said. “We will not criminalize basketball.”

“It’s very interesting they are so vehement about protecting the few individuals that have sport courts,” said Tim McGill. “They don’t take into consideration the whole.”

Noise rules tough to enforce

Because the noise ordinance is subjective and complaint driven, and there are no regulations for sport courts, the residents, the city and even the police are at odds as to how to enforce it.

Police use their own discretion when responding to noise complaints, according to Sgt. Neil Hennelly. Typically, if the noise can be heard a half of a block away, then it is considered a violation of the noise ordinance. Hennelly said the police always try to get the neighbors to work on an agreement if there are longstanding issues.

“What we always hope for and work toward is to have a negotiated settlement between the two parties,” Hennelly said.

According to Planning Director John Sonnen, city staff members plan to submit a preliminary draft of sport court regulations to planning commissioners in September for them to review and refine. A public hearing on the proposed regulations would not likely occur until November.

If the planning commission approves new regulations on sport courts, they would then go before the city council for a hearing and approval.

However, because existing sport courts would be grandfathered into the system, the McGills, Swansons and Holmeses would be left in the same situation.

“It’s aggravating for both of us. There’s no way around it,” said Mindi McGill. “Kids need to be outside playing, there’s no doubt about it, but there comes a point in time where you respect others.”

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