Photo: No tennis courts West of Harris Field.
William Lovallo didn’t mince words: “Respect the process.”
The Chair of the Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee came to the Tuesday, May 25 meeting of the Belmont School Committee to provide context to the nearly four year give and take on returning tennis courts to the campus of the new Middle and High School after they were written out of the new facility’s blueprints back in 2017 due to the growing footprint of the new school.
To Lovallo, the continuing campaign to construct five courts – the minimum required to play a tournament varsity match – ignores two previous decisions in 2017 and 2020 by the building committee, school committee, select board and the school district resulting in exiling the varsity sport to courts nearby the Winn Brook Elementary School.
Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan and Lovallo said they retrieved public meeting minutes and reviewed broadcasts of the Building Committee to counter statements by the tennis community that public comment was not fully accomindated.
“For the benefit of Belmont, as a whole, we have to move forward through the process and not keep going back and unpacking and reevaluating things that were decisions that we made that have such a tremendous impact on the project,” said Lovallo, who said that while there’s always a time to review some aspects of the project, [B]ut certainly there has to be some respect of the process” especially after material, dialogue and data were provided at eight joint meetings that informed their vote.
“It was well-vetted, it was well discussed and the school committee approved [the site plan] back [in 2017],” said Lovallo. The effort to secure votes on the “whole site” by committees and boards was “because we understand that boards and committee [members] change and people have different opinions and will want to start to unpack this,” said Lovallo referring to the entire building project which is ready to open the high school and administrative wing in September.
After an hour and 35 minutes of , the School Committee couldn’t coalesce behind a single strategy to bring back the courts to the school, allowing the debate to simply peter out through its inaction and putting to an end nearly a year-and-a-half of at times emotional pleas to bring back the only varsity sport without a campus venue.
“The School Committee effectively killed off any potential plans for tennis courts west of Harris Field … last night by declining to intervene in any way,” said Belmont School Committee’s Mike Crowley.
Since January 2019, the town’s influential tennis community and parents of and players of Belmont High School girls’ and boys’ tennis teams have been lobbying the School Committee and the greater community to return the varsity sport to the new campus. Currently, the teams play on four town courts at the Winn Brook, a location tennis supporters note is without restroom/changing facilities or a water supply. The $190,000 cost to construct a fifth court at Winn Brook will come before Town Meeting next week via a Community Preservation Committee request.
After the school administration and then Athletic Director Jim Davis recommended in January 2020 that the tennis teams could play effectively at the Winn Brook, tennis campaigners this year hitched their chances to construct five courts onto the town’s latest plan to replace the town’s dilapidated skating rink on the MHS campus known as West of Harris Field.
The location’s program includes the rink, three overlapping playing fields for junior varsity baseball and softball and soccer/field hockey, and approximately 100 student parking spaces required under the Site Plan agreement hammered out with the Planning Board. Tennis supporters believed the five courts could be included in the mix by either reducing parking by 80 percent or taking the space of the JV baseball diamond.
But Lovallo recalled that the parking component – which includes approximately 400 spaces on the main campus, on Concord Avenue and west of Harris Field associated with a new rink – is part of the Site Plan Review process with the Planning Board. A dozen public meetings with abutters, residents, the town and determined everything from plantings to parking and the location of the buildings (including moving one wing of the high school section a few feet away from Clay Pit Pond).
“The Planning Board has the final say, basically the final approval that allows us to proceed with the building permit on the site plan,” said Lovallo. While the building committee will need to return to the Planning Board for final designs for West of Harris Field, there is an understanding that parking and the fields are the main components.
The 100 student parking slots west of Harris is to segregate beginning and inexperienced drivers from the main campus which will house 7th and 8th graders by 2023, said Lovallo. While the total number of spaces is far more than what is likely needed on an average school day, the additional spaces will accommodate overflow community and school events such as graduation, athletic events, plays and musical performances and Town Meeting.
Saying that there should always be an opportunity to reexamine past decisions, Crowley presented the most comprehensive action plan to support tennis on the site with six options which included the possibility of taking by eminent domain the service station abutting the West of Harris Field and allowing for student and event parking on many of the adjacent side streets.
“I just think that we should exhaust all these options. I don’t want to completely [block] the process for going forward on this site, but I do think it’s worth thinking about constituting a small group or committee … to take a few months and go through these options in depth and see if there is … some form of a compromise that allows us to cite tennis courts on the site,” said Crowley.
Others believed the continuing review of past decisions could have long lasting ramifications. “I don’t think that this is not a particularly good precedent to have. We have a plan that has been evaluated, consulted on, and thoroughly talked through. At some point, you have to say, ‘This is enough,” said Andrea Prestwich.
For tennis supporters, this lost opportunity will be felt years down the road. Katherine Stievater, who has two sons playing varsity tennis, told the School Committee its decision on the fields alignment will have ramifications for the high school tennis program for the next 50 years.
“[Placing tennis courts] can’t be done again if it’s not done now on the campus,” Stievater said, pointing out that the school’s softball program is not suiting up a JV team while cuts were made to the number of players trying out for the boys’ tennis teams.
“I urge you to create realistic field configuration that accommodates five or six tennis courts for our student athletes … who are just as important as every other student athlete at Belmont High School.”