The nonprofit organization Stillpoint Martha’s Vineyard cleared a major hurdle Thursday evening, receiving approval from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to repurpose a West Tisbury barn into an Island-wide community space.
First brought to the commission for developments of regional impact (DRI) review last year by Stillpoint founder and president Thomas Bena, the project sought to transform an existing 3,200-square-foot barn into an educational gathering space for a wide variety of programs, events, and initiatives.
Per its mission statement, Stillpoint aims “to create a gathering space for educational offerings, including but not limited to discussions, workshops, silent retreats, and the arts.”
The land on which Stillpoint’s barn sits was part of an approved Priester’s Pond subdivision, which resulted in a 51.9-acre lot split up into 12 lots in 1998.
Ten lots were recently sold by property owner Claudia Miller, four of which, neighboring Polly Hill Arboretum to the north, were purchased by Stillpoint.
The other six lots, directly abutting the Stillpoint site, were sold to the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank to remain undeveloped.
In addition to hosting its own programs, the Stillpoint site will be available to other like-minded, year-round Island-based community groups or individuals to rent the space for their own purposes.
“The Stillpoint project offers an antidote to social division, a place for hard conversations, deep reflection, and strengthening of community bonds,” the nonprofit’s website reads. “It will be a place both for esteemed teachers and for those who don’t yet have a platform — a place for all of us.”
Thursday’s approval comes after months of numerous — and lengthy — public hearings and deliberations. Over that time, the MVC had received dozens of letters in support of Stillpoint’s plans, outweighing notifications of opposition.
Many have noted Stillpoint’s potential, drawing comparisons to other Island organizations like the Agricultural Society.
But since the beginning of the review process, commissioners have been hesitant to approve the project, citing their uncertainty about the intended use of the property’s barn. This was especially true after it was revealed that the barn would also serve as a rentable private event space throughout the year.
Additionally, commissioners and property neighbors have raised concerns over potential impacts the venue could have on abutting properties, since the seven-acre site is zoned for residential and agricultural use only. Impact on abutters is considered the project’s main detriment.
But organization representatives have since agreed to put strict limits on event attendance, noise, and light levels, along with promising to work with the town’s police department in advance of any large gatherings.
The approval is contingent upon compliance with over a dozen applicant offers and MVC-imposed conditions.
That includes capping annual attendance at 38,000, with not more than five events per day with attendance of 35 or fewer; not more than three weekly events with attendance of 35 to 100. The approval’s conditions prohibit the sale of alcohol on the premises, and restrict overnight accommodations. Amplified sound at the boundary of the property must not exceed 5 dBA above the measured ambient levels at that time.
Per the conditional approval, all events must cease by 10 pm, and attendees are prohibited from entering the neighboring Polly Hill Arboretum property without prior written permission.
During Thursday’s deliberation, commissioner Brian Smith reiterated concerns over the location, and said the nonprofit is akin to a commercial business. At the time of the MVC’s decision, he was the lone dissenting vote.
“I don’t disagree with the mission,” Smith said. “I disagree with the precedent of putting a business that’s going to have somewhere around 38,000 people a year in what was previously a really pristine location.”
He noted that Islandwide, there are a number of properties that businesses and organizations would want for commercial use, but zoning laws prevent it.
“There’s all kinds of beautiful spots on this Island specifically zoned not to have commercial activity,” he said, noting the property on which the Stillpoint barn sits is one of them.
Similarly, because the organization can’t be exactly sure how much use its facility will get, or how many employees it might have, Smith warned against approving a project without a solid business plan.
But commissioner and public hearing officer Doug Sederholm said he’s not too concerned about setting a precedent, given Stillpoint’s status as a not-for-profit education organization — which can allow flexibility and often bypass town zoning regulations.
“The only precedent would be a startup nonprofit that wants 38,000 visitors, over 1,000 events, in a year for educational purposes,” he said. “This is pretty much a unicorn in terms of DRIs.”
The commission approved the proposed project in a 10-1 vote, with one abstention. Commissioners Linda Sibley, Trip Barnes, Jeff Agnoli, Christina Brown, Jay Grossman, Fred Hancock, Greg Martino, Doug Sederholm, Ernie Thomas, and Peter Wharton for; commission vice chair Brian Smith opposed. Commissioner Katherine Newman abstained.
Corrections have been made to clarify the number of lots sold by Claudia Miller.