Turf wars

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A long and impassioned Island debate has swirled around the regional high school committee’s proposal, nearing a scheduled May 11 hearing date at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, to enter into the first phase of a major project to augment and begin replacing playing fields at MVRHS. The proposal relies on constructing one new synthetic turf field inside a new 400-meter track, to absorb a great deal of the demand now placed upon the school’s grass playing fields and to provide time for the existing grass fields to be rehabilitated.

Extremely interesting and productive exchanges have been carried out among individual community members, school representatives, and MV@Play — an organized community group working with the high school to assist in improving the school’s playing fields, at information sessions, in our online forums and other social media platforms, and in other venues. As one might predict, a great deal of attention has flowed to the positive and negative attributes of turf, and especially to the environmental and health risks turf might pose.

This is a high-stakes issue for Vineyarders, who take their roles as environmental and health stewards, and as parents, with the greatest possible seriousness. And the gravity of the conversation is apparent: The public discussion’s high level of research and anecdotal fact gathering, accompanying the usual abundance of reflexive certainty on both sides of the issue, reflects the best of Islander deliberation.

This turf/grass review could easily devolve into a referendum on synthetic turf, but such a simple formulation is too abstract to be helpful. While there are standalone advantages to the turf, we don’t think it would have gotten much traction if the high school fields were holding up, or even seemed redeemable. In fact, though, it is widely understood that the fields are badly deteriorated, that they are highly problematic for Vineyard coaches and players, and that they are sufficiently unsafe that some other league teams will no longer make the trip to the Island to compete, nor even schedule tournament games, here. So the question in front of the high school committee and now the MVC is whether the plan offered, all things taken into consideration, strikes the balance needed to solve the problem at hand.

In that light, consideration of the turf/grass combination proposal needs to begin with the reasonable assumption that the high school has a primary obligation to make adequate, safe athletic facilities available for all its students. The school believes that it does, and we agree. The school collaborated with a volunteer group, MV@Play, as well as a professional consulting engineering firm, and quantified its requirements — participants, hours of use, and both playing and grass-growing seasonality.

They concluded that the high school can’t reasonably support its athletic teams while limiting its fields to natural grass. There is simply no feasible way to provide the number of additional grass fields needed to allow rotational use, nor to provide irrigation, grass management, lights, bleachers — all the needed accessory components of an all-grass approach. From this point of departure, school officials concluded that the only viable alternative to meeting their primary obligation is to make synthetic turf a major component of its complex of fields, as schools all over the commonwealth have done.

It is true that however advanced synthetic turf has become, safety and environmental questions can and should continue to be raised. The science underpinning these challenges is legitimate but not conclusive, and at the same time there is a significant body of evidence which supports synthetic turf’s safety. There are no unequivocal certainties here, so the conflicting evidence and testimonies must be sorted out, and reasonable observers with different lenses will certainly differ in the conclusions they reach.

The final recommendation falls to the high school committee and to School Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea. Mr. D’Andrea understands the school’s paramount responsibility for student safety, and the long review process and accompanying discussion have given ample time to raise and consider issues of environmental and health-related uncertainties. Mr. D’Andrea has said that he is satisfied that the products under consideration are safe, citing the supportive findings of the state’s Department of Public Health. “The research I’ve done gives me the confidence to support this project as safe, and a project that allows for a centralized place for athletics in the Island community,” Mr. D’Andrea said in an interview with The MV Times (Cameron Machell, “Attorney puts school and town leaders on notice in MVRHS turf debate,” Dec. 14).

Mr. D’Andrea’s portfolio also includes a business responsibility — to consider the relative first and ongoing costs of alternative solutions, and decide which will fit into the school’s overall budget while securing sustained support from taxpayers across the Island. In this regard, the efficiency of artificial turf fields is a powerful argument to incorporate them into the school’s plans, and to seek approval of this phase 1 project. In the end, the high school committee has a fundamental problem to solve, to make safe and adequate fields available to all its students, and has to make the best judgment it can with the information available. This project is a good one, and deserves MVC support.