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Hume argues its RV park proposal is exempt from Monterey's zoning restrictions because it's a religious organization. The dispute has reached the highest court in Massachusetts

hume new england sign with seasonal limited use sign under it

During the summer, Hume New England, an evangelical Christian camp, runs a religious camp that it is hoping to expand by 200 beds by using RVs, something the town of Monterey says is against its zoning bylaws. 

MONTEREY — For years, Hume New England, an evangelical Christian camp on about 500 acres of dirt and gravel roads here, has struggled to find common ground with the town on its plans for expansion.

A campsite for decades, Hume began purchasing property atop Chestnut Hill Road in 2012, and there runs what employees described during a trial in the state’s Land Court as a “camping ministry.”

Churches send groups of youth and adult counselors to take part in summertime and wintertime religious instruction, set against the backdrop of the Berkshires. They attend chapel, and aim to connect with their faith while taking part in recreational activities such as canoeing, archery and basketball.

It’s the East Coast home of Hume Lake Christian Camps, which operates two other camps in California and, the Land Court noted, is governed by a board of directors.

And now, Hume New England is continuing to expand, having filed plans with the town to increase the number of beds from just over 300 to 500, according to court filings.

The expansion would be accomplished, in part, through the addition of a lodge and a recreational vehicle park, the latter in which the camp hopes to house volunteers, seasonal staff members and campers during seasonal camp retreats.

There’s the catch: Monterey’s bylaws ban trailer or mobile home parks everywhere in town. The Planning Board cited the ban in 2019 when it denied site plan review for Hume’s initial proposal for 12 “temporary travel trailers, motorhomes, tents, and seasonal staff housing trailers” to facilitate plans to run a “family camp,” thus setting in motion a string of appeals and an ongoing legal dispute.

But Hume argues, as it has in the past, that it is exempt from local zoning restrictions under the Dover Amendment because it is a religious organization.

Hume’s RV park proposal is the most recent of the nondenominational evangelical organization’s expansion efforts that have been met with resistance from the town.

But this time, the dispute has made its way to the highest court in the state, the Supreme Judicial Court.

The town says Hume’s motive for a “trailer park” isn’t primarily religious, but financial, and as such isn’t eligible for exemption from the town’s bylaw.

At the heart of the issue lies the Dover Amendment, a provision of state law that the Massachusetts Municipal Association says was passed with the intent of protecting religious and nonprofit educational groups from discrimination.

Chestnut Hill Road in Monterey, home to Hume New England, is closed and unplowed for the season.

After a decision in Land Court pleased neither side, both Hume and the town appealed to Massachusetts Appeals Court.

The Land Court ruling by Judge Diane R. Rubin said the RV sites are protected as religious use, and therefore allowed, if they’re used by campers, but not if they’re used by Hume volunteers and staff members.

Monterey Select Board Member Susan Cooper said the ruling is effectively unenforceable, envisioning a situation in which town officials have to go door-to-door polling who is staying at the park.

“What are we going to do,” Cooper said, “have the building inspector knock on the door of everybody’s RV?”

The camp says regardless of who is staying in the park — volunteers, staff members or campers — it is crucial to its religious mission. So Hume too takes issue with the Land Court ruling.

The state Supreme Judicial Court has stepped in to settle the score and heard oral arguments on the matter Feb. 6.

Donna Brewer, town counsel for Monterey, set the stage during her argument before the panel of justices. She told them just about 1,000 people live in the small rural town. She said she wanted to make something clear at the outset:

“Monterey has no hostility to or prejudice against Hume’s religious beliefs; that’s not why we’re here.”

Brewer argued an RV park isn’t primarily a religious use, but is rather a financial one, and therefore subject to town regulations. She said the Land Court was right when it ruled, in part, that the RV park would benefit the camp financially.

The nonprofit camp makes enough money to cover its expenses, according to Rubin’s ruling, and receives support from its parent group.

The Land Court judge noted that Hume’s board of directors “is not comprised of theologians and ordained ministers exclusively, but rather includes a mix of professionals and business people.”

The camp is free to build dormitories, Planning Board member Thomas Sawyer said, permanent structures that would be more costly than the RV park pending approvals and site plan review. He said one dorm-building project was approved after the RV disagreement arose.

closed road covered in snow with foot tracks

Chestnut Hill Rd. in Monterey, home to Hume New England, is closed and unplowed for the season.

“We’re not holding a grudge; we’re just trying to follow the zoning bylaws,” said Sawyer, a defendant in the camp’s lawsuit.

Hume’s position is that the RV park is a part of its “religious purpose” and would “would assist Hume in furthering our mission of people experiencing Jesus in the camp environment,” according to a statement on its website.

Hume’s lawyer, Alexandra Glover, argued before the seven justices of the SJC that Hume’s right to build the proposed RV park is protected by the Dover Amendment.

“The primary purpose of the use of the land is the Christian ministry through the camp,” Glover told the justices.

She further detailed plans, saying they call for temporary seasonal housing, including trailers, and RVs. Hume New England doesn’t need year-round housing, she said, adding that barring the proposal would exclude volunteers who travel in RVs.

Though most campers are church members, people not attached to a church can go to the camp in keeping with Hume’s mission to convert nonbelievers, former director John Szablowski testified in the 2021 Land Court trial.

Groups that attend the camp must be religious, and the director said he rejected requests to use the Monterey camp facilities by Red Bull and MassMutual because they were secular organizations.

Tim Desilets, the current director of Hume New England, referred a request for comment to a communications strategist with the public relations firm Guardian. The strategist referred back to the posted statement and declined to comment further.

The town has spent thousands on the legal fight. After extensive discussion, Special Town Meeting in January approved the use of $30,000 free cash for litigation.

“The town felt that it was important that they support the Planning Board” in its interpretation of local ordinances, Brewer, the town counsel, said.

Hume’s online statement indicates the organization left the SJC oral arguments feeling good, calling the session a “significant and positive step forward in the legal proceedings.”

“There was seemingly no question from the Supreme Court about our being a religious organization with a religious purpose that should be given protection under previous amendments to the law,” Hume said in the statement.

It could be months before the SJC issues a ruling.

Sawyer, the Planning Board member, said he believes religious organizations should be free to practice how they wish. He said the Dover Amendment as interpreted by Hume, however, effectively “negates all the zoning laws” that residents established over the decades to preserve the character of Monterey.

There aren’t many cases involving the religious-use exemption in the Dover Amendment, Brewer said, as courts are generally more keen to resolve questions pertaining to the rights of educational organizations in Massachusetts cities and towns.

An SJC ruling favorable to Monterey, Sawyer said, could “raise some notice.”

{p dir=”ltr”}”The Dover Amendment might have some limits that it didn’t have before,” he added.

Brewer said the SJC, if it sides with Hume, could set a precedent for other religious uses to build structures that are expressly barred by local rules.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6296.

Cops and Courts Reporter

Amanda Burke is Cops and Courts Reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. An Ithaca, New York native, she previously worked at The Herald News of Fall River and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.

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