The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is seeking to be exempt from Oak Bluffs zoning and associated bylaws after invoking the Dover Amendment. The Dover Amendment exempts agricultural, religious, and educational institutions from certain local zoning restrictions in order to provide essential services to the community.
First enacted in Massachusetts in 1950, the Dover Amendment was originally intended to protect religious institutions and nonprofit educational agencies from discrimination.
At a planning board meeting on Feb. 13, Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith read a letter that described the school’s plan to use the Dover Amendment in the submission and review process for the MVRHS track and field project.
For years, the school has sought a new track and field for student athletes to utilize, but the ongoing contention between opponents and proponents of this proposed project has been a polarizing force for many in the community.
Oak Bluffs planning board chair Ewell Hopkins said he did not anticipate the school invoking the Dover Amendment, and is worried that the school is trying to circumvent the town review process by reading the letter during public comment.
“We did not have the privilege to deliberate or engage in discussion; they told us, we listened,” Hopkins said.
According to Hopkins, the board did not get a chance to read the letter prior to the meeting, and board members were “blindsided” by its contents.
Hopkins said he is “shocked and outraged” that school officials took this major step in a forum that doesn’t allow for response from the board. “The school is taking actions that I cannot justify as a member of the community,” Hopkins said.
If the school has a problem with the process of the planning board, Hopkins said, he wished they would have scheduled a conversation about their frustrations. “They were implying that I was stonewalling, and trying to keep everything at the town level. I have a process to protect, and the applicant doesn’t have a right, in my opinion, to disregard the authority of this process,” Hopkins said.
“They are legally challenging the authority of the town of Oak Bluffs and its ordinances and bylaws, and their applicability to the school campus,” Hopkins said. “They gave us no explanation of why they were doing this; they said they didn’t see the applicability as a town for us to oversee this application.”
Board members are having ongoing conversations with town counsel regarding the issue.
Assistant Superintendent Smith said in a phone interview with The Times that the plan to use the Dover Amendment in the review process was included in the original application to the planning board, and the avenue the school is taking is entirely transparent.
But Hopkins maintains that by invoking the Dover Amendment, the school is taking an adversarial position against the planning board.
Hopkins said Smith did not refer to the spot in the original application where the Dover Amendment is mentioned, and instead presented an extensive legal document. “He did not once say ‘as articulated in the application,’” Hopkins said.
Smith said the school is not trying to circumvent any town review processes, and said the urgency of the project necessitated the invocation of the Dover Amendment.
“We presented a project to the board that prioritizes the safety of our students,” Smith said. “My intention has always been to identify what the values of the community are on both sides.”
Smith said his letter wasn’t meant to surprise the board, but the school is prepared to utilize whatever tools are at their disposal so the project is looked at in an unbiased and transparent way. “We aren’t trying to bypass any review by the town or the commission. This amendment does not exempt the school from wetlands protection and other ecological restrictions,” Smith said.
According to Smith, the school’s main ambition is user safety, which is why they self-referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
“We are not trying to circumvent anything, we are trying to make sure the project we put forward is looked at objectively before the opinions of folks override its core values,” Smith said.