The Martha's Vineyard Commission knows all about wrangling over golf courses, but next Thursday night they will take up tennis when they consider plans to build a youth tennis center near the blinker light off Airport Road in Oak Bluffs.
Unlike golf, this tennis plan has nothing to do with making money. Vineyard Youth Tennis Inc. is a nonprofit group backed by an anonymous donor who wants to fund ongoing efforts to offer free tennis instruction and playing time for all Island kids. Total cost for the land and construction is tagged at about $1 million.
Thursday's hearing begins at 7:30 p.m. in the high school Performing Arts Center. The MVC's regional planner David Wessling said the commission is expecting a large turnout based on the numbers of letters and phone calls received about the project.
Vineyard Youth Tennis got its start in 1997, giving free tennis lessons to children in the Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury schools, then adding an after-school component.
Now, the plan is to expand the program and build four clay courts and a 2,000-square-foot building on 13 acres at the old Deer Run property near Goodale Construction. The project was referred to the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI). Two of the courts would be covered by a polyester bubble in the winter. If the project wins MVC approval, it must still go before the town zoning board for a special permit since the land is zoned for residential use.
If both boards approve the plan, organizers say they could have Island youth playing tennis there as early as next fall. The same donor is underwriting operational costs, and the philanthropic mission is to get a tennis racket into the hand of any Island child who wants to play - all the way to age 21.
"This is meant to serve our youth on the Island," said Grace Bochicchio, the instructor who got the project started. A former collegiate player, she also has high hopes for the Island's young prospects. "We hope someday this will become a situation where we can produce Olympic team players," she said.
Despite the adage about looking a gift horse in the mouth, the project has its detractors. The most vocal have been the owners of the Vineyard Tennis Center at the airport, Ken Martin and Connie McHugh, who complain that the free tennis center will undercut their business and pose traffic problems near what is already a dangerous intersection.
They have also raised concerns about potential light pollution at the center and the height of the proposed seasonal bubble. Furthermore, they have argued in public and in letters to the newspapers that a youth tennis center would duplicate efforts already under way at their airport business to offer tennis instruction to children.
For the commission's part, Mr. Wessling said review of the proposal will hinge on a number of issues, including economic competition and environmental aesthetics. Earlier rulings by the MVC could also play a role, he said. Concern about competition was a factor in the commission's decision last year to deny a proposal by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to open a Sears outlet in West Tisbury, according to Mr. Wessling.
And commissioners could also be wary about repeating mistakes of the past. Mr. Wessling agreed that some on the MVC still harbor regrets about approving the nearby Windfarm Golf driving range, which has drawn considerable controversy for its high fencing.
On the proponents' side, Alan Schweikert, the former Oak Bluffs selectman and a spokesman for Vineyard Youth Tennis, said his group has tried to anticipate and resolve the concerns being raised.
A traffic study commissioned by the youth tennis group was completed in January and found that the project would "result in minimal traffic increases." The report, while predicting an additional 103 cars accessing the center in the peak afternoon hours, also stated: "The increase on the adjacent roadway system will not be noticeable."
On the issue of light pollution, Mr. Schweikert pointed out that the seasonal bubble is made of an opaque material that will not cast any exterior glow. The bubble would be in place between November and April. Also, in the summer months, the center would not be open past 8 p.m.
While the interior of the bubble would meet a 36-foot height regulation for indoor tennis, the floor would be four feet below surface grade, making the exterior elevation 32 feet. Existing trees and new plantings would be used the screen the center from the roadside view.
"If the bubble turned out to be too egregious, the donor would be willing to put up a permanent cedar-shingled structure," said Mr. Schweikert. Indeed, money does not appear to be any stumbling block for this group. Funds will be set aside to keep the center operating beyond the life of the donor, said Mr. Schweikert.
Both Mr. Schweikert and Ms. Bochicchio predict the tennis center will be in great demand. Working in just two Island schools, the tennis instruction has reached on average 300 kids a week. For the after-school programs in Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury, about 100 children a week have turned out for lessons and playing.
The real problem is space. Ms. Bochicchio has kids playing on makeshift courts inside the school gyms or even out in the hallways. And in pursuit of space in the winter time, she has taken the more dedicated players - some 25 in all - over to Falmouth to practice and compete. "With tennis, you have to play all year long if you want to excel," she said.
Ms. Bochicchio, who works as a private tennis instructor, got the idea to teach Island children the sport simply as a way to create a supply of partners for her son. "My son started kindergarten in the Oak Bluffs School, and I wanted him to like to play tennis," she said. "But if your friends aren't playing, it's hard."
Back in 1997, Ms. Bochicchio started talking to one of her clients about the idea. "The donor said, ‘Well, then let's do it right,' " she said. "The project started taking shape. I talked to principals, and hundreds of kids signed up."
Then in the summer of 1999, serious discussion began to take place about building a youth tennis center. The group contacted the ice arena about possible land, and then the sliver of land near the blinker became available.
The goal for Ms. Bochicchio is to take the snob element out of the sport. "Tennis has been a sport where you can't play much if you're not a member of a yacht club," she said last fall. "We want to take that away and make tennis available to all the Island youth."
The issue of affordability is at the crux of the project. "A lot of kids on the Island can't even afford a tennis racket," said Mr. Schweikert. At Vineyard Tennis Center, memberships for children cost $100 a year plus $5 an hour court fees. The tennis center has also offered free instruction to Island schoolchildren and hosted tournaments for school tennis teams.
And while the owners feel threatened by the prospect of a free youth tennis center, Mr. Schweikert believes that in the long run, it will be good for the Vineyard Tennis Center.
"We believe we will be providing players who will be going to Ken and Connie," he said.