The pop of tennis rackets echoes through the fields along Keller Smithfield Road. The cadence is accompanied by an occasional grunt or scream as a player exerts energy into a serve.
Meanwhile, the area around the five tennis courts remains a construction zone with no paved parking lot, utilities, restrooms or electricity. Instead, there’s a dirt road, portable toilets and nowhere to put the trash. Signs warn drivers to keep their speed low to avoid kicking up dust. Construction vehicles rumble down the street at all hours.
This is the reality for neighbors surrounding the new Birch Racquet & Lawn Club in north Keller, the former Newton’s Rocky Top Ranch site. The controversial project has five outdoor tennis courts with plans to install five more.
Ultimately, the project will have a 39,000-square-foot clubhouse with five indoor courts. None of the promised landscaping has been put in and all the trees that used to shield residents on Keller Smithfield Road have been removed.
Opponents sued the city and former Olympian and tennis professional Taylor Dent to try to stop the project. In May, Keller voters approved a resolution that overturned the city’s earlier decision to offer $380,000 in incentives to The Birch. It passed with 56 percent of the 3,600 ballots cast.
The lawsuit filed by the Johnson Road Coalition is in the settlement phase with neither side talking.
But other neighbors who aren’t part of the lawsuit have plenty to say.
“They don’t have to have a certificate of occupancy, clearly, and they’re in the middle of a construction site with a bunch of kids out playing tennis,” said Tracy Brown, who lives across the street. “A little strange but apparently they’re all clear with the city.”
The Birch has had all the proper permitting and inspections required at this point in their construction, said Rachel Reynolds, public information officer for the city of Keller.
“There was nothing in the PD approval that prohibited them from starting business on the outdoor courts before the indoor facility was built, so they’re allowed to have activity on the courts and get their business going there at this time,” Reynolds said.
Some neighbors have raised concerns about the courts being much higher than what was presented to the council. Reynolds said everything is being built in accordance with the construction plans, including the building, which will be 41 feet high.
Rick and Andrea Stoller support the Birch plan, saying they would favor that over the high-density housing that could have been built there.
“High-density housing would have been 10,000 times worse,” Andrea Stoller said. “We think it will drive our property values up. People from California have already come to get their kids enrolled there.”
The Stollers have lived in their home for 17 years and have seen other small-lot neighborhoods pop up around their rural home.
“From our perspective, Keller needs something high quality like this. I think this is a great thing for any city to have a high quality draw,” Rick Stoller said. “They’re going to pay a ton of taxes as that thing keeps growing and they’re not going to add kids to the school district. And they’re not going to add demand to police and fire.”
Lee White, who has lived in the area for 33 years, said the city should never have allowed a commercial operation in a rural residential area.
The former Rocky Top Ranch remains zoned residential with a planned development zoning to allow the Birch. The structures planned are all listed as accessory buildings to the residential homes on the site.
“They did not change the zoning from residential to commercial,” White said. “They know that would have violated state law with respect to spot zoning. The whole Birch has been permitted as an accessory building to a residence.”
Former City Council member Armin Mizani said he supported the Birch while on council and he still does.
“With any development in Keller, my expectation as a community member is for a developer to want to be good partners with the city of Keller and the residents,” Mizani said. “I voted in approval of the tennis center because I believe and still believe that Taylor has good intentions.”
The Birch will also draw more traffic to Keller Smithfield and Johnson roads, both narrow, two-lane streets with bar ditches on either side.
Even before the Birch project, Keller planned a $925,000 roundabout at that intersection to handle increased traffic from Keller High School and the stadium, Reynolds said. Construction on the roundabout has been postponed so the city can seek a state grant that could pay 90 percent of the cost. That will include a 10-foot wide sidewalk that will cut deeper into White’s property.
“All of these plans are being triggered by the traffic circle and the traffic circle is being triggered by the anticipated traffic problem of the Birch,” White said. “This road becomes unbelievably clogged, especially around 4 when the high school gets out. We have to plan our lives around the schools getting in and out. Now we’ll have to do the same thing with the tennis center.”
He’s planning on moving because the Birch and other projects have destroyed the semi-rural nature of the neighborhood, he said.
Dent declined to comment for the article as did the plaintiffs from the Johnson Road Coalition.
Andrea Stoller said that the Dents have stayed above the fray while facing a lawsuit from residents.
“We have been around them a lot. They have never said any unkind word about the huge opposition and the lawsuit they put them through,” Andrea Stoller said. “They just say, ‘We hope to be good neighbors.’”