Despite winning unanimous approval from the Martha's Vineyard Commission this spring, a plan to build a youth tennis center near the blinker light in Oak Bluffs now faces an uphill battle to win approval at the town level.
Vineyard Youth Tennis Inc., a nonprofit group, wants to provide free tennis instruction and playing time to Island youth at its proposed center, but Phil Hughes, chairman of the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals, told the Gazette yesterday that he has several concerns about the plan. Traffic congestion, he said, tops the list.
"We're not going to make the same mistake the board made with the [Windfarm] driving range," Mr. Hughes said. "We just rubber-stamped the commission decision. We should have asked for more evidence, like scale models."
He added that he is skeptical about a traffic study which claims the tennis center would not worsen an already dangerous situation at the intersection of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road with the Barnes and Airport roads. The zoning board hearing starts at 7 p.m. Thursday in the community room of the Oak Bluffs School.
The plan calls for building four clay courts and a 2,000-square-foot building on 13 acres at the old Deer Run property near Goodale Construction. In addition, an inflatable bubble would be erected between mid-October and April to allow for indoor play. The program, which has the financial backing of a West Tisbury benefactor, Gerald DeBlois, got started back in 1997 under the leadership of tennis instructor Grace Bochicchio. Since then, Ms. Bochicchio has worked with children in gym classes and in after-school programs in the Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury schools. In the winter months, she has taken groups of young players to Falmouth to compete on indoor courts.
But the plan for a permanent home in Oak Bluffs with expanded offerings to all Island youth cannot happen without unanimous approval by the town ZBA. The project needs a special permit to proceed since the land is zoned for residential, not for commercial or recreational uses.
While the ZBA has received only one letter in opposition, Mr. Hughes said he knows residents of both the Deer Run and Schoolhouse Village housing subdivisions are worried about the impact on traffic. A traffic study commissioned by the youth tennis group in January 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." But Mr. Hughes said traffic at the intersection needs to be factored into his board's decision. Accidents there have increased at a rate of 50 per cent a year with a total of 18 crashes in the last three years. Some selectmen have lobbied for installing the Island's first stop light at the crossroads.
Besides traffic concerns, the zoning board will also consider input from nearby residents. At MVC hearings in March, several people complained about the siting of the tennis center and the potential visual impact. Mr. Hughes said his board will want to see some designs of how the seasonal bubble will look in proportion to the rest of the neighborhood.
Finally, Mr. Hughes said he would also pay attention to how the youth tennis center might affect the Vineyard Tennis Center at the airport, whose owners, Ken Martin and Connie McHugh, have objected to the youth center. They argued that it would be unfair competition and would threaten the survival of their business. None of those arguments swayed the Martha's Vineyard Commission, whose 12 members all supported the plan. They did so, however, with 10 conditions that included requiring fencing between the tennis center and Goodale's gravel pit and an agreement to make payments to the town in lieu of taxes. Operating hours of the tennis center would also be restricted to between 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. in July and August to lessen traffic impact.
Also, the commission required that the tennis center donate land to the town if needed to aid efforts by the town to improve safety at the blinker intersection. A special easement for a bicycle rest stop on the bike trail and another easement for a walking trail were two more conditions.
Alan Schweikert, a former selectman and a board member at Vineyard Youth Tennis, said his group would also agree to abandon the bubble structure if officials found it too objectionable. "The donor would be willing to put up a permanent cedar-shingled structure," Mr. Schweikert said last spring.
Mr. Schweikert and Ms. Bochicchio are committed to the mission of getting a tennis racket in the hands of any Island youngster who wants one. Right now, they say, money keeps many of them from taking up the sport. At Vineyard Tennis Center, memberships for children cost $100 a year plus court fees of $5 an hour. Working in the two Island schools, Vineyard Youth Tennis has reached an 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.
Mr. Schweikert said his group wants to take the elitism out of tennis. "A lot of kids on the Island can't even afford a tennis racket," he said.