A plan supported by East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson to privatize four tennis courts at the Terry King park on Abraham’s Path in Amagansett has drawn considerable opposition, as well it should. Now, with new information about the prospective private operator’s plans, reasons for rejecting it are underscored.
Mr. Wilkinson reasons that the courts need work that could cost $100,000 or more, and Sportime, which operates the nearby indoor sports facility called the Arena, has said it would be willing to lease the courts and repair them at its own expense. To be sure, the town is in a tough spot, pinched between McGintee-era debts and the current board’s aggressive tax cuts. Unfortunately, however, Sportime has been criticized for not entirely following its agreement with the town on its low-priced lease of the Arena, limiting public hours and failing to make required improvements.
Sportime also runs an East Hampton tennis club that has a successful summer camp for children. Its brochure promises “the exclusive use of the Sportime Multi-Sport Arena,” despite an assurance in its agreement with East Hampton that the facility be substantially open to all, providing further evidence that leasing the four courts to the company would not be in the public’s interest.
The puzzle is why Sportime, which already has more than 30 private courts on two nearby parcels, totaling about 22 acres, would need to add the few at the Terry King park. As it turns out, the company is interested in erecting a steel building or fabic dome over the Terry King courts to allow year-round and inclement-weather play. There are at least two other tennis facilities in East Hampton Town with domes, and it makes sense that Sportime would want to get a piece of the 12-month pie.
But winning approval for a building over some of the club’s private courts would be nearly impossible, however, because they are pre-existing nonconforming uses on residentially zoned land. Trying to expand the business in this way would be a long, complicated process, opening the club to scrutiny by the town planning board and giving neighbors an opportunity to speak out in opposition. Putting up a building at the Terry King park, on land zoned for recreatioin, would be a negligible expense for Sportime, and it could be done quickly.
Under the town’s control, the Terry King courts cost $8 per hour between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and $4 for kids or senior citizens. Play is free after Labor Day until the nets are taken down for winter storage. If the courts are put in private hands, and under a roof of some sort, the price is likely to rise, hours to be limited, and free off-season games put in jeopardy.
The town should not promote commercial empire-building at the expense of public recreation. Nor should it use public assets to aid in an end run around zoning rules. This is a bad deal and should not go forward.