Religious Uses Under the Dover Amendment, G. L. c. 40A, §3
Section 3 of The Zoning Act, G.L. c. 40A, also known as the Dover Amendment, provides that zoning may not “regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes or for educational purposes” except that “land or structures may be subject to reasonable regulations concerning the bulk and height of structures and determining yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, parking and building coverage requirements.” But what is a religious purpose, and what protection is afforded to related or accessory uses or structures? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has considered this question in Hume Lake Christian Camps, Inc. v. Planning Bd. of Monterey, SJC-13365 (June 7, 2023).
In Hume Lake, the Court considered whether an RV camp proposed to be developed at an existing Christian religious and recreational camp was entitled to protection under the Dover Amendment. Specifically, the RV camp, which would not otherwise be allowed under the local zoning bylaw, was proposed to be used by families attending the camp, as well as housing camp volunteers and seasonal employees. The dispute centered on the issues of whether the housing of families, volunteers, and seasonal employees was a “religious purpose” and whether economic motivation for housing volunteers and seasonal employees was relevant to the inquiry. On the first issue the Court found that housing, while secular in the abstract, qualified as a religious purpose stating that a “religious organization may depend upon secular tasks, such as the provision of food and housing, in order to operate effectively.” The Court also considered whether the motivation for developing the RV camp—which was in part to defray the costs of constructing permanent buildings—diminished this religious purpose. The Court held that it did not, stating that the “focus of this court's analysis  has never been on an organization's reason for choosing one means of pursuing its goals rather than another.”
The takeaway for our readers is that the reach of the Dover Amendment is broad. In the case of religious uses, careful consideration must be given to land uses proposed by religious organizations and a measure of deference should be given to their self-identified needs for operation. This deference notwithstanding, an organization’s preferred means or methods of operation—such as housing—may still be subject to reasonable regulations addressing bulk and height of structures, yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, parking, and building coverage requirements.