MVC denies Alliance Community Church expansion

The Martha's Vineyard Commission Thursday voted against a planned expansion of the church located in a residential neighborhood. — File photo by Michelle Gross

Ending the latest regulatory chapter in a process that began in January and included five public hearings over a six-month span, but dates back to 2008, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) on December 19 denied the Alliance Community Church a permit to expand its building and church activities. The 4-3 vote on Thursday, Dec. 19, was based largely on the impact an expansion would have in the residential neighborhood on Ryan’s Way, off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

The MVC took up the planned expansion as a development of regional impact (DRI) after representatives of the church, formerly known as Nova Vida, asked for a permit to expand on their existing property in Oak Bluffs

by a total square footage of 9,000. Located in a residential neighborhood, the size and use of the church have been the subjects of ongoing debate between neighbors and church representatives ever since the MVC first approved the 150-seat church as a DRI in 2008.

Two commissioners eligible to vote abstained. Four of the 13 commissioners present were not eligible to vote due to absences during the public hearing process. They excused themselves from the meeting prior to the discussion and vote.

Christina Brown of Edgartown, Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs, and Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark voted to approve the project with conditions. John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs, Joshua Goldstein of Tisbury, James Joyce of Edgartown, and Brian Smith of West Tisbury voted no.

Erik Hammarlund of Tisbury and Linda Sibley of West Tisbury abstained. Clarence Barnes of Tisbury, Madeline Fisher of Edgartown, Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark, and Joan Malkin of Chilmark were present but recused themselves.

Faith in God

“We are saddened and disappointed by the decision,” Rosemarie Haigazian, attorney for the church, told The Times in a telephone conversation Monday. “The neighbors certainly voiced their opposition, repeatedly, and we thought it was something we dealt with on several occasions and we were encouraged when we met with the land use planning committee meeting Monday.”

She said church officials are discussing their options and have yet to reach a decision about how to proceed. “We thought it was all set,” she said. “We thought everything had been worked out.”

“I am not sure what we will do,” said Valci Carvalho, minister of the 85-person congregation. “We will put all the facts together and meet the first week in January to decide. My day-by-day experience teaches me that everything, everything works together for the love of God, even bad news, things you don’t understand.”

Size mattered

Paul Foley, a DRI analyst and planner for the MVC, told The Times that based on the discussion that preceded the vote, the decision not to approve was based on the size of the proposed expansion and the impact the larger building would have on the site and surrounding community.

“There was a question of why the church members need this,” Mr. Foley said. “They already have an approval for a bigger building, and with their daycare program gone and the whole facility now available, why is a big addition necessary?”

One sticking point was a community room, Mr. Foley said. There was a concern that it could be used as a function room, and church members were not willing to specify any limits on its use.

Mr. Foley said those concerns reflect past MVC discussions. “You can’t just think about the applicant in front of you; you have to think in terms of the structure and how it could be used in the future,” he said.

Mr. Foley said one concern is that once something is built, it’s the nature of buildings that if there is space available, it will be filled.

Because the MVC approved the previous proposal in 2008 to locate a 150-seat church and daycare facility in the existing building, Mr. Foley said he presumed the church would seek a modification to that decision.

“They have a decision they can still act upon, which they’ll probably need to amend because the daycare component is gone,” Mr. Foley said. “With a vote like last week’s, which obviously was very close because there was barely a quorum of commissioners, they might want to come back with a different plan and start with a full commission again.”

Punt blocked

Although commissioners Linda Sibley and Erik Hammarlund sat through the entire year-long process, when it came time to vote both abstained, leaving a decision up to their colleagues.

Ms. Sibley said she wanted to postpone the vote. When her motion was rejected, she decided to take a pass.

“I thought we were not ready to make a decision,” Ms. Sibley told The Times. “I thought there was a giant loophole, too many uncertainties.” She said that she was worried about the impact on the neighborhood.

Asked why she didn’t vote against the project, Ms. Sibley said she is not opposed to it. “It wasn’t until after the dust had cleared and I was able to think about it that I was really comfortable with the way it stood,” she said, adding that she did not reach that conclusion until the next day.

Mr. Hammarlund, who also abstained from voting, said it was a relatively contentious, three and a half hour discussion. “I thought it was the appropriate vote to cast given all the discussion at the meeting and all the various other discussions beforehand,” he told The Times Monday.

He declined to elaborate on his reasons for his abstention. “The issue may come up before the commission again. I don’t think it is appropriate.”

Long process

The MVC took up the planned expansion as a DRI in January after representatives of the church asked for a permit to expand on their existing property in Oak Bluffs.

The church applied to build a 4,500-square-foot addition that would include a 4,500-square-foot basement. When added to the existing 7,000-square-foot building already on the property, the proposed expansion would result in a total square footage of 16,084.

In 2008, the MVC approved plans for a 150-seat chapel on the second floor of the existing building and a 28-child day care center on the bottom floor. The daycare center has since moved and building plans have been dormant.

Frustration on all sides

The MVC closed the public hearing on the church’s application to expand on December 12.

Throughout the public hearing process abutters said the project was out of scale with the neighborhood.

In comments at a public hearing on December 12, Kris Chvatal, an abutter to the church and a member of the Oak Bluffs planning board said, “I bought into the road in 2010, fully aware that that property was going to become a church. And I fully accept the church being there in its original iteration, but this is much larger, much more intrusive, much more out of scale.”

Russell Wendt of Ryan’s Way, also an opponent, told the commissioners last month, “I think everybody’s kind of fed up with this: it’s been going on for seven or eight years now. But this should be clear, this isn’t about religion, it’s not about race, it’s about reasonable use of a residential piece of property. I think we should all agree on that.”

Frustration on the part of church leaders was also evident during the public hearings. In comments last month, Bruno Delavera, a member of the church said, “I’ve seen the abutters of Ryan’s Way for the last seven years, and every single meeting, they bring up something different. So that means, every time they bring something up it needs clarification by the pastor or by the attorney and then they change their subject.”

Mr. Delavera said he has heard everything from wastewater and nitrogen levels to building size and religion, and he’s ready for some resolution. “I remember them saying that it was nothing about nationality, nothing about Christianity. My point is, is it going to keep going on and on and on?”