Wellesley Rec seeks to get everyone playing nice on town courts

While the rise of pickleball in Wellesley and elsewhere has been well documented, interest in tennis has boomed locally as well since the start of the pandemic. Residents have been encouraged to get outside in the fresh air, and tennis has provided a way for people to do that while staying relatively distant from those they play with.

All of which has upped demand for a limited resource—outdoor courts—despite Wellesley Recreation’s efforts to allow more pickleball options both on top of what traditionally have been tennis courts, on the basketball court at the Warren Building, and eventually at Perrin Park. Rec also uses a system that allows players to reserve time online at the Hunnewell and Sprague courts, though we’re sure there are those who know the right times and places to just show up and play. We’ve seen devoted tennis and pickleball players on the courts at all hours and in all weather conditions.

Hunnewell tennis courts, Wellesley
Hunnewell tennis courts, Wellesley

What’s squeezed court availability even more is the increased presence of those offering paid lessons on the courts, and that’s got the Rec Department and Recreation Commission reviewing its policies around court use since permits, tax documents, CORI checks, etc., are required for such use.

Rec Commission Chair Paul Cramer described during the recent Rec Commission meeting (see Wellesley Media recording) a scene at the Sprague courts recently where a tennis instructor who doesn’t live in town blocked off 3 hours of prime weeknd court time to give lessons. Cramer had also heard from a neighbor who’d been prevented from playing at Schofield because the court was taken up for lessons. Cramer says he would have kicked the man at the Sprague courts off if he’d had on hand the town’s policy on use of private facilities for public gain, adding that the ability of someone to reserve a facility for 3 hours is itself something the town should take a look at.

“I think this is a problem already and is only going to become a bigger problem,” Cramer said, noting that usage rules apply to the town’s baseball, softball and other fields as well.

Rec Commission’s Jim Rodrigue said: “My suspicion is that this happens a lot more frequently than all of us are aware of.” He advocated for increasing public awareness of the rules.

Mike Sabin, who coaches the Wellesley High boys’ tennis team and teaches tennis via Rec, said there is abuse of the town’s court rules by those seeking personal gain, but that most instructors he knows aren’t “trying to get away with anything.” He said for the most part the instructors he works with take a reasonable approach to offering lessons if they do so outside of Rec-sanctioned coaching, seeking opportunities to do so on underused courts or during less popular hours. “COVID has changed things. a bit,” he acknowledged, citing the closure of some indoor facilities and reluctance among some players to play indoors.

This “tradition of just don’t get in the way of people” has been tested by the pandemic and increase in people scheduling court time and looking to play pickleball as well, Rec Commission Chair Cramer said. That might require a policy that at the very least restricts lessons by such instructors outside of the most popular court times, he said. Given that some of those court hours blocked off are for taxpaying residents to take lessons, it’s not as simple as just outlawing such services.

Town Counsel Tom Harrington was invited to join the Rec Commission conversation to help shed legal light on court usage topic. Since the courts are town property, overseen by either the schools or Natural Resources Commission with the Rec Department’s support, Wellesley “can control them however we want,” he said.

Wellesley could take the steps through Town Meeting of amending its bylaws to define violations and citation amounts. One approach to backing up such changes would be hiring a park ranger to monitor the most heavily used facilities and to issue citations up to $300 per violation if warranted, Harrington said.

If changes were to be proposed for Town Meeting in the spring, Rec will need to get together relatively soon with the schools and Natural Resources Commission and hammer out some language.