More than a year after its plan was first proposed, the non-profit known as Stillpoint won final approval Tuesday to create an educational event space nestled amongst conservation lands in West Tisbury.

The West Tisbury Zoning Board of Appeals voted 4-1 to grant Stillpoint a special permit after the organization conceded to holding fewer non-education events each year. Lawrence Schubert, Julius Lowe,  Deborah Wells and Andrew Zaikis voted in favor. Jeffrey Kaye was the lone no vote.

The approval follows an extended hearing process from both the zoning board and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, drawing voluminous public comment both for and against the project. The MVC approved the education center in May, allowing Stillpoint to host up to 38,000 visitors at the event space each year.

Stillpoint plans to hold educational events at the West Tisbury property. — Jeanna Shepard

“I’m still kind of pinching myself that it happened,” Stillpoint founder Thomas Bena said Wednesday in an interview with the Gazette. “I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Founded in 2021 by Mr. Bena, who also started the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival, Stillpoint was described as a “community space for classes, conversation and contemplation” by assistant director Jake Davis. The events will take place in an existing barn on 14 acres of land off Stillpoint Meadows Road near Priester’s Pond.

That land was part of a multi-party purchase organized by Mr. Bena to acquire most of a 52-acre property previously owned by Claudia Miller. Years before, the MVC had approved the site to be developed as a 12–lot subdivision. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank purchased 26 acres of the property, and a private couple purchased one of the existing homes.

The event space has no real peer on the Island. The lack of precedent gave MVC members a hard time during their lengthy consideration of the project. Since taking up the project in June, much of the West Tisbury zoning board’s concerns have centered on the impact Stillpoint events might have on the surrounding neighborhood and town.

Concerns about the volume of traffic, noise, light pollution and an environmental impact were all raised during the hearings.

Stillpoint has argued that its plans to host educational events are immune to board review under the state Dover Amendment, which exempts educational and religious uses from some zoning regulations. Some board members raised concerns about a stipulation in the permit granted to Stillpoint’s by the MVC allowing up to 20 per cent, a max of about 300 events annually, as “off-mission” events, generating revenue by renting out the space.

A legal opinion sent to the board by West Tisbury town counsel Michael Goldsmith advised the board that it could ask for clarity on the off-mission events to determine if they were protected under the Dover Amendment. 

At a meeting on August 24, Stillpoint’s attorney Marilyn Vukota and Mr. Bena said the organization would drop the request for off-mission events.

“This whole 20 per cent off-mission has been kind of a distraction,” Ms. Vukota said. “We are interested in moving forward with our mission of providing educational offerings.”

The meeting on Tuesday mostly focused on a review of Stillpoint’s site plan, with board members asking questions on lighting, traffic control and parking. The board ultimately granted a special permit allowing Stillpoint to hold events, under conditions outlined by the MVC, but without the off-mission events.

In the decision, the MVC limited Stillpoint to five events a day that draw up to 35 attendees, and up to three a week with between 36 and 100 attendees.

In the conditions of the permit, the zoning board allowed Stillpoint to host up to 10 non-educational fundraisers for its organization each year. The board also required Stillpoint to get approval from the town building inspector on the nonprofit’s lighting plan.

“Now it’s up to you to prove that [Stillpoint] is the unicorn we thought it was, and not the Trojan horse people thought it was, because that’s what people were worried about,” said zoning board member Julius Lowe.

With the final phase of permitting now over, preparations will begin to make the barn ready for events.

“Our plan now is to fundraise for the startup expenses,” Mr. Bena said Wednesday. The site still requires a new enhanced septic system, a new well, work to prepare parking spaces and the installation of a handicapped accessible ramp and bathroom.

Despite the long list of work, Mr. Bena plans to start hosting events next year.

“Our hope is to begin next summer,” he said.