MVC says MCAD lacks jurisdiction over agency
The law firm representing the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) against a discrimination complaint filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) by Jack E. Robinson, an Oak Bluffs inn owner, said the state commission lacks jurisdiction over the Island land use agency.
The courts have often ruled in favor of the overarching authority of the MVC over land use issues even in the case of the law known as 40B, which allows developers to bypass local zoning regulations when certain affordable housing criteria are met.
But this is the first instance in which the authority of the MVC has been tested against the state agency charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws in numerous areas.
Last July the MVC refused to issue a permit that would have allowed Mr. Robinson to greatly expand the Martha's Vineyard Resort and Racquet Club located on New York Avenue. On Nov. 10, Mr. Robinson, the former president of the Boston NAACP, filed a complaint with the MCAD charging that the denial of his inn expansion "further underscores the usage of this agency [MVC] to limit and eliminate participation in the Martha's Vineyard economy by African American businesses and organizations."
The MCAD began a formal investigation of the discrimination complaint based on an initial interview with Mr. Robinson and a determination that the nature of his complaint fell within the agency's statutory authority.
Mr. Robinson has also filed a civil suit against the MVC in Dukes County Superior Court.
The MVC legal position was outlined in a letter dated Jan. 30, 2006 addressed to Jessica Thrall, MCAD investigator, from Sara Solfanelli, an attorney with the Boston law firm of Choate Hall & Stewart.
Ms. Solfanelli asked that the discrimination charge be dismissed in its entirety because the MCAD does not have jurisdiction over decisions relating to land use claims.
Ms. Solfanelli wrote, "The Legislature has carefully defined the areas of law that are within the MCAD's purview. The MCAD is charged with enforcing specific sections or portions of the General Laws, all of which prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, mortgage lending or education.... Because the facts of Robinson's complaint pertain solely to a decision related to land use and the granting of a building permit, the MCAD lacks jurisdiction to hear his complaint."
She added that regardless of the alleged illegal nature of the MVC decision, the jurisdiction to review that decision is "exclusively vested in the Superior Court."
She wrote, "His meritless charge filed with the MCAD is not only improper, but also duplicative."
Aside from that argument, Ms. Solfanelli said Mr. Robinson's claim of discrimination "...lacks merit in any event." She said Mr. Robinson's claim fails because "...he cannot prove that the MVC's articulated non-discriminatory reasons for denying his application (inappropriate location, non-essential project, negative overall effect upon other persons and property, interference with municipal general plan and inconsistency with land development objectives and policies) were a pretext for racial discrimination."
In a press release sent to The Times dated Feb. 6, Mr. Robinson repeated his claims of racism and discrimination on the part of the MVC and criticized the MVC's decision to rely on Choate, Hall & Stewart to respond to the MCAD, the law firm that regularly represents the MVC in legal matters.
"This wanton disregard for the rights of the complainant," wrote Mr. Robinson, "as well as the exorbitant spending of taxpayer dollars to propagate their racist policies and actions further underscores the limits this agency will go to advance their agenda of exclusion."
Mr. Robinson has found little support on the Vineyard for his discrimination charges. Past and present leaders of the Martha's Vineyard chapter of the NAACP said Mr. Robinson had not attempted to discuss his discrimination complaint with local NAACP leaders.
In earlier comments, Mandred Henry of Edgartown, former long-time president of Vineyard NAACP, said he does not agree with Mr. Robinson's charge that the MVC has been used to limit or eliminate participation by African Americans in the Vineyard economy.
Mr. Robinson's Martha's Vineyard Resort and Racquet Club was originally approved by the MVC as a development of regional impact in 1991. In March 2004, Mr. Robinson asked the MVC to approve an expansion of the five-room inn. His proposal called for the addition of 14 rooms and a significant increase in the size of the structure.
Throughout the hearing process, Mr. Robinson stressed the fact that his inn was one of the few resorts on the East Coast owned by an African-American and that the property played an important role in the Vineyard's cultural life.
Citing size and the impact on the character of the neighborhood, the MVC denied the permit by a vote of 7-3.
Mr. Robinson returned to the MVC almost one year later with revised expansion plans that called for adding eight guest rooms and two employee rooms. Once again, the commission denied a permit, citing the scale and impact of the project on the surrounding neighborhood.
The MCAD process begins with an initial investigation into the merits of the charges. According to a sheet provided by the MCAD, at some point there will be an attempt to arrive at a settlement. If that is not possible, the investigation will conclude with a determination that discrimination either did or did not take place.
If there is a finding of probable cause and that finding is upheld through the appeal process, the MCAD may order several sorts of remedies, including monetary damages.