After 10 years of meetings, dozens of applications and a fair amount of controversial decisions, Ewell Hopkins will step down from the Oak Bluffs planning board this spring, opting to not run for reelection. 

Mr. Hopkins’ exit, along with the planned resignation of fellow board member Jojo Lambert in early April, will shake up the board and potentially lead to an appointment by the select board. Only one candidate is running for what will be three open seats. 

Mr. Hopkins, who served two terms and is the most recent chairman, said he decided to not seek another five-year stint on the board for various reasons, including a wish to see new people serve and a desire to take on a larger environmental advocacy role. 

“I think 10 years in an elected position at the town level is sufficient,” he said in an interview with the Gazette. “We’re only healthy if we are cycling in new thoughts and new voices.” 

For some, Mr. Hopkins’ departure is the loss of a steady hand on one of the town’s most important regulatory boards.

“We will miss Ewell,” said Chris Chambers, the lone candidate for the two open planning board seats at the April 11 election. “That’s a bummer.” 

At last week’s planning board meeting, Oak Bluffs resident Richard Toole praised Mr. Hopkins for his dedication to the town. 

“You have turned the planning board around to something that actually functions and serves the town of Oak Bluffs,” he said.

But his tenure was not without controversy. Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Lambert (who did return a request for comment), were the two no votes that led to the 2022 rejection of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s application to overhaul the school’s athletic facilities and install a turf field. 

That decision, based on concerns over water quality, was later overturned by a state Land Court judge who said the school was exempt from most zoning regulations and ruled the board overstepped its authority. The planning board’s appeal was stopped abruptly when the select board voted to cut off the spending of town funds.

During that application process, project proponents called for Mr. Hopkins to recuse himself for alleged bias against the project.

In a statement to the Gazette, Kris O’Brien, the Oak Bluffs representative on the regional high school committee, recounted numerous instances going back to 2019 where she felt the planning board misstepped on the high school athletics facility application.

Speaking personally, she pointed to times where she felt the board took testimony outside of a public hearing and exceeded the board’s site plan review power.

“Town elected officials have both a legal and ethical obligation to follow public process and procedures, including Town policies and by-laws, Mass. General Law, as well as the advice of Town legal counsel,” she said. “The public record shows that the chair of the planning board failed to do so on multiple occasions, causing three requests for his recusal.” 

In the end, the appeal cost Oak Bluffs about $40,000 and a judge ruled that the planning board did not have the right to reject the field over water concerns because of a state law that exempts schools for most zoning requirements.

For his part, Mr. Hopkins maintains that the board should have been able to have a say.

“The idea that the town of Oak Bluffs did not have authority over land use and zoning because of an exemption at the state level I still think is one of the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard,” he said.

Mr. Hopkins grew up in Framingham and in his youth began visiting the Cape and Islands. He studied operations management and marketing at Boston University and went on to work in sales and the advanced database industry. 

Mr. Hopkins eventually bought a summer home in Oak Bluffs, and moved there with his family year-round 27 years ago. 

His work in the private sector kept the bills paid, but he said community service is what fed his soul. In 2014, he ran for the planning board, unseating a longtime incumbent. He also made a run for state representative in 2016, but lost in the primary to Dylan Fernandes. 

In his decade on the planning board, Mr. Hopkins said more and more applicants with means are applying and things are often adversarial from the get-go. He saw it as the planning board’s job to be willing to defend potentially unpopular decisions if they don’t meet the town’s regulations. 

He felt the threat of being sued and the fiscal implications of litigation was playing too much on the minds of public bodies such as the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

“It has turned into an effective tool as a developer goes forth with an application,” Mr. Hopkins said. “We can’t be afraid of that.” 

Aside from the turf rejection, Mr. Hopkins said another decision that stood out to him over his tenure included the limits put on the Tabernacle’s expansion. He was also proud of the Oak Bluffs streetscape and master plan updates, as well as several zoning proposals that will be going to town meeting next month. 

“It might sound strange to you but bringing these articles to town meeting this year is as much of an accomplishment as the master plan and the streetscape,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Getting it to town meeting has been a tremendous and multi-year feat.”

With his exit and Ms. Lambert’s decision to step down, the board will be short-handed unless there is a write-in campaign. For a planning board, that can be difficult because applications have to be taken up within a mandated time frame and supermajorities are needed to approve special permits. 

Still, Mr. Hopkins was confident that the board would be able to carry on. 

“I think we have a model in place,” he said at last week’s meeting. “We have a strong foundation from a professional perspective. I think the town is going to be in good shape.” 

Away from the planning board, Mr. Hopkins said he wanted to do more work in community service, including through his role as a board member on the Vineyard Conservation Society.  

He advised any potential new board members to be well versed in the town’s zoning, not be intimidated and expect litigation at some point. 

“If you’re not being sued, it means you’re probably not doing your job,” he said.