For the first time in nearly two decades, an organized group of leaseholders at the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs is challenging the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, which since 1868 has owned and governed the historic enclave of colorful Victorian cottages centered around the Tabernacle in Trinity Park.

Members of the newly formed Campground Leaseholders Coalition (CLC) want a change in association leadership and a vote in how the MVCMA board manages the Camp Ground. But the insurgents are facing an uphill battle against more than a century and a half of past practice.

“Direct voting by leaseholders is not really consistent with the nature of our organization,” board president Andrew Patch told more than 150 Camp Ground residents at the Tabernacle on the afternoon of August 21.

“I’m all for democracy, in the sense of a democracy, but the Camp Ground is not a democracy. It never has been,” continued Mr. Patch, who was re-elected as president by his fellow board members on August 20 following a demonstration by a picket line of CLC protesters who called for his removal.

“It would be foolish and certainly not my intention to ignore the viewpoint of any leaseholders, but it isn’t a democracy,” Mr. Patch added August 21, during a two-hour Tabernacle forum in which some two dozen resident leaseholders rose to speak.

Founded as a tent encampment for the Methodist faithful who gathered for summer revival meetings, the Camp Ground has never had a formal church affiliation, though longtime residents continue to consider it a faith community and the Tabernacle hosts Christian worship every Sunday in season.

More than 300 privately owned cottages now stand on the former tent sites, sites that remain the property of the MVCMA. Leaseholders must renew their land agreements every year or face the prospect of either moving their houses elsewhere or selling them to buyers who have been approved by the MVCMA.

The new leaseholders’ coalition, which organizer Will Wallace said is still an informal group that currently represents about 70 Camp Ground households, follows an earlier, short-lived organizing effort with a similar goal.

Camp Ground residents formed Homeowners and Tenants (HAT) in 2004 in response to planned renovations at the Tabernacle, which overran the board’s estimated cost by nearly 100 per cent.

While the association board said at the time it would consider changing the bylaws to allow leaseholders a say in Camp Ground governance, the movement petered out with no significant changes.

This time around, CLC members say they are fully in support of planned repairs to the Tabernacle’s deteriorating roof.

It’s the 1,300-square-foot addition, with a green room, piano storage and 10 bathrooms, that the protesting tenants say has been unnecessarily — and expensively — tacked on to the roof project and has led the association into uncalled-for litigation with the town.

“This is a tent that’s used for two months of the year,” Janet Barker told the Gazette on August 20 during the CLC protest at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, where the association board held its private meeting.

“It’s designed to sort of be our place of worship, and we personally don’t need 10 bathrooms because we live there and if this becomes a venue … for large events, we risk losing our 501(c)3 [tax exempt status], because we become an event venue, which is really not in the spirit of the Camp Ground,” Ms. Barker said.

CLC members say Mr. Patch and the board are misrepresenting the Camp Ground community by filing two lawsuits against the Oak Bluffs planning and zoning boards over conditions the boards had imposed on the Tabernacle addition.

“We are a community of faith. Suing is not a religious experience,” Ms. Barker said August 20 as she protested outside the museum.

The tenant residents also are upset over what they see as an intimidating letter Mr. Patch sent last month to a group of neighbors in the Happy Hollow area of the Camp Ground, threatening not to renew their land leases if they continued to use what had been a shared walkway that is now being claimed by another leaseholder.

“I trust that this letter is sufficient to bring this detrimental conduct to an end. There will be no second warning,” Mr. Patch wrote on camp meeting association letterhead July 18.

“That last line sums up the whole situation here. We’re completely tired of it,” said Jack Sipperly, whose parents have owned their Happy Hollow home on leased association land for 15 years and rented in the Camp Ground prior to buying.

All three Sipperlys turned out for the demonstration at the museum, where protesters held neatly lettered signs reading “Vote for Change” and “One Cottage, One Vote.”

As a boy, Mr. Sipperly told the Gazette, he and his friends explored the Camp Ground and always knew that neighbors were watching out for their well-being. Nobody ever talked about trespassing, he added.

“You feel safe,” Mr. Sipperly said. “Everyone is so friendly … For anyone growing up, this place is kid heaven.”

“That sense of community has always been something that makes this place special. That’s why we’re all here,” he said.

His feeling of neighborly comfort was shaken when Mr. Patch’s letter arrived last month, Mr. Sipperly said.

“I was astonished, completely. I was absolutely shocked,” he said.

“Step down, Andrew,” another protester called politely, as Mr. Patch arrived for the board meeting.

The demonstrators then gathered in a brief prayer circle, bowing their heads as longtime summer resident Ellie Hall spoke to the board inside on behalf of the CLC.

“We are a community of faith and we should reflect that in our actions, especially our leadership. Threatening correspondence should be the last approach to conflict resolution,” Ms. Hall told the board, quoting Proverbs in the Bible: “‘A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.’ And that is exactly what resulted from Andrew’s harsh letter.”

Mr. Patch declined to discuss the Happy Hollow letter at the August 21 forum — the second of two monthly gatherings held each summer for leaseholders and board members alike — but readily responded to most other questions and comments.

While some speakers supported the association’s historic governance structure, many others took the microphone in favor of the CLC’s “one cottage, one vote” mandate, receiving rounds of applause in return.

There were also groans of discontent at some of Mr. Patch’s responses, as when he said he didn’t believe most leaseholders truly want a vote in Camp Ground affairs.

More than half a dozen people who spoke August 21 wore yellow shirts to signal their affiliation with the CLC, which also has distributed yellow ribbon rosettes for coalition supporters to display outside their cottages.

While the CLC did not get its way with regard to Mr. Patch as board president, some members told the Gazette that leaseholders at August 21’s forum were far more outspoken than in the past.

“Usually the fear factor is so heavy,” said Tara Urban, one of the group’s organizers. “You usually don’t get the cheering ... We don’t usually do that.”

“It seems that the board’s hope is that the CLC will fade away over the fall/winter/spring, but no such luck,” she said. “We are already planning for the months ahead and we will continue until a democratic restructuring becomes a reality.”