Keller Citizen

Construction could start soon on controversial private tennis center in Keller

The proposed Birch Racquet & Tennis Club in Keller.
The proposed Birch Racquet & Tennis Club in Keller. The Birch Club

A controversial private tennis club could start construction soon despite neighbors’ attempts to fight it in court and at the ballot box.

Former Olympian and professional tennis player Taylor Dent said he purchased the final piece of land Thursday and secured a construction loan to build phase one of Birch Racquet & Lawn Club. The project will include a 39,000-square-foot tennis club with a clubhouse and five indoor tennis courts located at 660 Keller Smithfield Road. The first phase will also have 10 outdoor courts.

It will take an estimated six months to build.

“We hope to start building soon and make it a quick process,” Dent said. “I think everybody on our side is eager to get started and eager to do something great in the city of Keller.”

Neighbors in the mostly rural area of north Keller are suing the city to reverse the zoning change for a facility they say will disrupt their lives, bring traffic and noise, and devalue their homes.

The case is in the discovery phase with a trial date set for May 21.

Brian Campbell, who is leading the fight against Birch Racquet & Lawn Club, called this spot zoning that will bring a high-density commercial use to a rural area. The site is currently the home of Newton’s Rocky Top Ranch, which offers therapeutic horseback riding.

“It’s a commercial business that’s been granted operations on a residential property,” Campbell said. “If they lose in court, then the ordinance that permitted them to have their facility would be null and void so they couldn’t operate it.”

The group, called the Johnson Road Coalition, also opposes the city giving more than $380,000 in economic development incentives to the private tennis club. In July, the Keller City Council voted 4-1 to grant property tax rebates, waive development fees and commit to build a portion of the sewer and drainage infrastructure on the site. Councilman Armin Mizani cast the lone no vote, while Mayor Pat McGrail and Councilman Whatley were absent.

The Johnson Road Coalition retaliated, collecting 1,589 signatures on a petition to force the entire incentive package onto the ballot. The referendum will be on the ballot for the May 5 election.

“The sentiment among people is strong that economic development funds shouldn’t be used for this facility,” Campbell said. “This is a membership club with dues and initiation fees. He’s taking advantage of corporate welfare that the city has provided for him, and the community as voters do not want their money spent that way.”

The proposed club has met opposition since it was first proposed with bubble domes over the courts in 2017. When that project failed to pass council approval in April, Dent came back with the permanent concrete and brick structure, which caused the cost to skyrocket. Dent said that’s what prompted him to seek incentives last year to help speed up the process.

Now, with the economic development agreement on the ballot, Dent said he can do the project with or without the city’s participation. “We’re going to proceed no matter what happens in May,” Dent said. “We’ve been very blessed to fund this project fully.”

Keller has not spent any of the economic development funds — that’s on hold until after the election, Rachel Reynolds, the city's public information officer, confirmed.

Keller has spent $52,000 so far in legal fees for the lawsuit brought on by the Johnson Road Coalition. That includes fighting the attempt by the residents to get a temporary injunction to halt the project. That request was denied by the court.

The facility is expected to attract aspiring tennis players from around the country who want to learn from Dent and his wife, Jennifer Hopkins Dent, who also has a long list of accolades in the sport.

“For the average citizen, what it would mean is that we will be an attraction for people outside the city of Keller who will invest money and have a good time in Keller,” Dent said. “We moved out here close to Keller a year and a half ago, so we’re full time here.”

Future phases of the club could add boarding facilities, more indoor and outdoor tennis courts and a child care facility to the 27-acre tract. Ultimately, the land could have up to 35 tennis courts, including 10 indoors.

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