Youth Tennis Center Plan Stirs Emotional Discussion Across the Entire Vineyard

By JULIA WELLS

Site problems, traffic impacts, resentment from two rival business owners and an exceptional program that has sparked a love of tennis in hundreds of Island children - all these were subjects for discussion at a second public hearing last week on the new building proposal by Vineyard Youth Tennis Inc.

"This is a gift that's being offered to the children of this Island, and I think we're crazy if we turn it down," said Jan Schulze, a West Tisbury resident and single mother.

"I can tell you that this program for the kids is terrific," said Ned Fennessy, a veteran tennis instructor and coach of the high school tennis team.

"My main concern is location, location, location," said Oak Bluffs resident Jim Hart.

"The devil's in the details," declared Tisbury resident Mev Good.

The comments came during a public hearing before the Martha's Vineyard Commission last Thursday night on the project planned by Vineyard Youth Tennis. The project is under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).

The project calls for building four clay courts on 13 acres on the corner of Barnes Road and the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, near the blinker light and adjacent to the Goodale gravel pit. The property is also across the road from the Deer Run subdivision. The plan calls for covering two of the tennis courts with an inflatable bubble in the winter months. If the project is approved by the commission, it will also need a special permit from the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals for a private club in a residential zone.

Vineyard Youth Tennis is a nonprofit group funded by Gerald DeBlois, a West Tisbury resident who prefers to remain quiet and private. The sole mission of the group is to provide free tennis instruction and playing time for all Vineyard children - forever.

The youth tennis program has been in place for three years under the direction of tennis instructor Grace Bochicchio, who teaches more than 100 children in school gymnasiums all over the Island. Ms. Bochicchio also takes a group of children to Falmouth once a week in the winter months to play at an indoor court.

A public hearing on the tennis center project opened last month. At the second hearing last week Alan Schweikert, a member of the board for the youth tennis center and the leading spokesman for the project, addressed an array of additional details associated with the project. Among other things, Mr. Schweikert introduced a landscaper to talk about screening and plantings, and a traffic expert to talk about the anticipated traffic impacts from the project. The location of the project is the source of some concern because the blinker light intersection is a well-known traffic problem spot in the summer months.

Access to the youth tennis center is planned off Barnes Road. Mr. Schweikert said the hours of the program can be adjusted to avoid the peak traffic periods on the road, and he reiterated that the program is only for children.

"There will be no adult programs. There will be no adult membership," Mr. Schweikert said.

A large group of youth tennis children attended the hearing, alongside Ms. Bochicchio. The children sat quietly on the floor while the commission conducted more than an hour and a half of other business, and when it came time for the tennis center public hearing, several raised their hands to speak.

"I know I'm just a kid, but I think this would be a real good thing for me, because I love tennis. It's really fun," said Mike Diaz, a sixth grader from West Tisbury.

"I really like tennis, and I'm good at it. And that's all I have to say," said four-year-old Patrick McCarthy, who wore a bumblebee striped shirt.

"I used to take lessons at the Vineyard Tennis Center, but now I play with Grace and I like it better because it isn't so uptight," said Jeffrey Smith, another sixth grader from West Tisbury.

The comment touched on an awkward undercurrent that accompanies the youth tennis project. The project is opposed by the owners of the Vineyard Tennis Center, a commercial indoor tennis and fitness center at the airport. The owners of the tennis center see the youth tennis project as a threat to their business.

Vineyard Tennis Center owners Ken Martin and Connie McHugh reiterated their concerns last week.

"We work hard and lately I have had a recurring dream. You remember when you were a kid and you set up a lemonade stand? Well, if another kid came along and offered lemonade for free, you would be out of business," Mr. Martin said.

But young Jeffrey Smith later questioned the logic.

"One quick question for Mr. Martin: If somebody can't afford his indoor court time, I don't get why he is opposing Grace's tennis center for the children who can't afford his indoor courts," he said.

Mr. Martin replied: "If Mr. DeBlois would buy scholarships for kids at our tennis center, we would welcome that."

Mr. Schweikert said the owners of the tennis center have refused to allow Ms. Bochicchio to teach at their center.

He also revealed an exchange of correspondence between the tennis center owners and an attorney for Mr. DeBlois, in which the center owners offered to sell their business to Mr. DeBlois for $2.9 million.

Mr. Schweikert said the youth tennis group declined the offer, both because the price was so high, and because the tennis center is an established facility for adults.

"We don't want to run a physical fitness center or a health club. We don't want to honor adult memberships. If you look behind the words, you will see that the truth is in our intentions," Mr. Schweikert said.

The tennis center proposal has seen an outpouring of support from a wide array of Island residents, many of them parents whose children have benefited from the tennis program, and many others of them adults who work with children.

"We keep hearing the same thing - it's not free, there are going to be adults. Well it is free, and there aren't going to be adults," declared Scott Campbell, a parent and a member of the Vineyard Youth Soccer board of directors.

"I've never heard the terms ‘free' and ‘Martha's Vineyard' ever used in the same sentence . . .What a great opportunity to make the sport of tennis available to all children regardless of their financial status," wrote Jay Schofield, a longtime physical education teacher at the regional high school and a well-known mentor among teens.

But the building project has also come under fire from residents of the nearby Deer Run subdivision, who say it is an inappropriate use in a residential neighborhood.

"I am for this tennis program, but this isn't the location. It's one more step into making the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road a strip," said Donna Maurice, president of the Deer Run homeowner's association.

"I have nothing against kids or tennis; I just don't think this is where it should be," said John M. von Mehren.

Commission members asked questions on a variety of topics, most of them related to site planning.

One issue centers on the proximity of the property to the Goodale plant. Mr. Schweikert said some kind of fencing is planned between the two properties, possibly snow fencing, but several commission members said the fencing must be more than symbolic, for safety reasons.

There were also questions about the program.

"Does the benefactor have a minimum requirement?" asked commission member Emanuel Horne.

"No," replied Mr. Schweikert. "If there is one kid in the program, it will still be financed."

The youth tennis project will be funded in perpetuity through a foundation and a trust. Under the terms of the trust, if for any reason the program ceases to function, the property will revert to the town.

The public hearing was closed after an hour and a half of testimony; the written record will remain open through this week. The project will now go to the commission land use planning committee for deliberations and recommendations; the full commission is expected to vote on the project sometime next month.