Proposed tennis courts at NHS/ Credit: Activitas

It must have seemed like a simple idea: The four tennis courts at Needham High School need resurfacing, requiring a substantial investment. But because the high school team needs more than four courts to host a match, the team must use other courts in town for home matches and the existing courts are underutilized by students. Park and Recreation is aware of general demand for public courts — including for its oversubscribed tennis lessons — so why not add four more courts?

Here’s why not: Proximity to the abutting backyards on Webster and Rosemary streets. Distrust due to the fact that the existing courts, which were put in when the high school was renovated in 2008, are just 12 feet from the Webster Street properties instead of the called-for 25 feet, which partially explains the regular arrival of errant tennis balls. The sacrifice of a grass field, another paradise paved. A process that did not seem well executed, at least not to the homeowners. And worst of all, the prospect of the current tennis court scourge: pickleball.

The situation has led to a series of extended hearings before the Planning Board, with another one scheduled May 14, and a number of revisions by Activitas, the firm hired to design the new project. The project, which had been included in the agenda for the May 6 Town Meeting at a cost of $2.6 million, was pulled from the warrant after the Select Board met on Tuesday.

“I’ve lived here for 50 years,” said John O’Leary, who lives on Rosemary Street and voiced concern about the quiet enjoyment of his backyard, not only for his family but for his chickens. “For all that time, the tennis team has not held its matches at the high school. Why does that have to change now?”

Planning board hearing on tennis courts/ Credit: Needham Observer

“The town has not done its due diligence,” said Ellen Dudley, who lives on Webster Street. Dudley is in high dudgeon over the process. The design team presented to Park and Rec in November, but the affected homeowners were not informed of the project until it went to the Planning Board in March. Even then, the plans were not available to the homeowners before the April meeting — and until yesterday, the unapproved plan was still on the Town Meeting warrant.

Like O’Leary, Dudley pointed out that many high school teams need to leave the school grounds for practice and matches. “But it’s not the high school I have a problem with,” she said. “I knew I was buying a house adjacent to the high school. It’s the public that’s not respectful.” Unlike the high school teams, older players use the courts from dawn to dusk, noise and mishits notwithstanding.

At the hearings, Stacey Mulroy, director of Park and Recreation, said pickleball — which has louder and more frequent ball strikes than tennis — can and will be banned at the high school courts, eliminating the issue of highest concern. She said the department also will consider limiting the hours of use and will detail the town’s park ranger to help enforce the rules.

Mulroy also spoke about the demand for tennis courts. “Tennis is the most popular summer Park and Rec program for kids,” she said. The program is always oversubscribed. 

Plus, she pointed out, more courts means more high school students get hired to be instructors.

Ardi Rrapi, the project manager for the town, appeared surprised — and maybe exasperated — at the continued pushback at the April 24 hearing. When a resident mentioned that paving more of the land will affect drainage, Rrapi described the extensive drainage plan, but also informed her that water runs downhill. Later, he said, “You asked for a higher fence, so we gave you a higher fence,” he said. “What else can we do?”

NHS tennis coach Drew Lawrence (R) and Park and Rec Commissioner Chris Gerstel listen at planning board hearing/ Credit: Needham Observer

“I’d like the fence further from my property,” came the reply.

The Planning Board has been attentive to the issues raised by homeowners. The past two meetings have turned into design charrettes as board members have asked the team to move the new courts away from the abutters’ properties, add screening, and generally rethink the project. Even with the new courts moved away from the property line, “Neighbors want to blunt visual and noise impacts,” said Adam Block, chair of the Planning Board. “I think that can be accomplished with additional screening.”

Block said the town is going to return to the Planning Board with new plans at the May 14 meeting, and there will be another opportunity for public comment. “Hopefully, we will close the hearing then and deliberate and vote at the following meeting,” he said. “The purpose of the hearing is for the Planning Board to get all the information it needs to make a decision.”

The project is expected to come up for funding consideration at fall Town Meeting, meaning there is perhaps now time to address the abutters’ concerns.

As for the existing courts’ proximity to the property line, that is now settled as the statute of limitations has run out for contesting it. Dudley says she regrets not opposing it at the time, but she understands that it’s not a legal requirement now. “In 2007 I had three children under the age of 2,” she said. “I was not paying attention. I woke up and there were tennis courts.” She and her family have been living with the noise and the players who appear in their yard to retrieve balls ever since. One thing she never hears? O’Leary’s chickens.

 Save as PDF

Click here to go Home