A unique feature rises in the backyard of a home on Oak Hills Drive in Newark.
Five years ago, Roger Williams made an investment to the community when he built a first class tennis court in his backyard. Hidden from the street, he calls it the “Backyard Tennis Club.”
The property is landscaped like a botanical garden. It looks like a high-price country club. Climbing rose bushes grace one entire side of the fence surrounding the court. Blossoms in a variety of colors spill over the top. He spends several hours almost every day providing lessons to children and adults in the community.
“It’s taken me years to get to this,” Williams said. “And I had the blessing of the city when I opened it. It’s been my dream to bring tennis to this area, and it’s always been my passion.
“It’s helped give kids more confidence in themselves and more self-discipline.”
He’s taught or continued to teach a bulk of the players on the boys and girls varsity teams at Northwest High School.
“When we moved to our current home, which is right next door to the Williams’, over two years ago, our children were immediately invited to join Backyard Tennis Club and within weeks had new friends and had learned a new sport,” said Robert Thornell, a neighbor and former principal at Chisholm Trail Middle School. “Many students have enjoyed the benefits of exercise and learning a lifetime activity from Coach Roger.”
But a single complaint from one neighbor might cause the “Backyard Tennis Club” to come to a sudden halt.
On July 26, Williams received a cease and desist letter from the city attorney ordering him to shut down his Backyard Tennis Club.
“The tennis enterprise being operated at your residence violates the Customary Home Occupation Ordinance,” read the letter.
It states Williams is in violation of several ordinances, and if he does not shut down he will be open to prosecution.
“I was blown away,” Williams said. “I’ve been operating for five years, and then all of a sudden they say I’m not following city ordinance.”
“It’s in violation of nine or 10 city ordinances,” said city councilman Bob Wells, who also happens to be Mr. Williams’ neighbor.
He said the lights on the court violate lighting ordinances, the noise from lessons violate noise ordinances and several more from having a home occupation operating outside in a residential area.
“You can’t have an outside business in a residential area,” Wells said. “I don’t know what kind of compromise you can have on that.
“I don’t have a problem with him giving lessons in the community, but he should have set it up in a commercial area.”
It’s all come in the wake of Williams fighting a battle with prostate cancer.
“Throughout all the treatments making we weaker, I’ve still kept coaching the kids,” Williams said. “And now I’ve had to deal with this, too.”
Williams has asked if the city would grandfather him in.
Wells said the city can’t since those ordinances were in place years before the court was built.
The city can charge up to a maximum of $2,000 per day for each ordinance violation.
The city became involved after Well’s wife, Mary Ann Wells, informed the city secretary that Williams was in violation of several ordinances.
Williams said he thinks it’s an abuse of power for the Wells’ to use city resources to shut down his tennis club. Mr. Wells contends it’s not personal, but he’s only following city law.
“It’s not personal to me because I’m not the one that made the complaint,” Mr. Wells said. “I don’t have any dog in this fight other than it’s a nuisance.”
Wells recused himself from the vote when the council recently voted 3-0 to enforce any city ordinances regarding the Backyard Tennis Club. But several residents and other neighbors have risen their voices in support of the club.
“Prohibiting the Backyard Tennis Club would be a terrible blow to our community,” Thornell said. “It offers an affordable, fun activity to many.”
Williams stressed that he’s supported youth in the community in other ways as well. Last year he had a fundraiser at his tennis court for Newark’s Heart for Park program. The event raised $2,500, that went toward replacing dilapidated playground equipment that had been removed from Delora Doughty Royal Park.
The Backyard Tennis Club has also provided affordable lessons as well as free rackets and shoes to local children from low-income families that want to take lessons.
“There’s no other venue like this in the area that is offered to kids or adults,” Williams said.
And if a compromise can’t be made, there soon won’t be one at all.