MVRHS committee approves synthetic turf for athletic field

Following concerns about the safety of crumb rubber, MV@Play proposed using organic infill in its place.

Community members lined the aisle in the MVRHS Performing Arts Center to express their views to the school committee about the proposed turf material. – Sam Moore

Phase one of a multiphase project to completely revamp the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) athletic complex will include a new synthetic turf field. After a nearly three-hour public meeting that saw parents, coaches, and students air their views for and against the use of the synthetic turf, the high school committee voted 5-2 in favor of the plan as proposed, which includes using an organic infill material made of a blend of cork, coconut husk, and silica sand.

Robert Lionette of Chilmark and Theresa Manning of Aquinnah voted against the proposal; Kris O’Brien of Oak Bluffs and Janet Packer of Tisbury were absent. Megan Anderson and Kelly McCracken of Edgartown, Colleen McAndrews of Tisbury, Lisa Reagan of Oak Bluffs, and Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury voted in favor.

“As we heard earlier and saw from pictures, the track and the field here is in terrible shape, and I think you said it’s a million dollars to get it fixed up,” Mr. Manter said. “We know that’s not in the budget next year. We know it’s probably not going to be in the budget the year after … The health is an issue, and even though it’s a wonderful thing, you can research any topic and find the scientific study that will argue both sides of it, and it’s hard to figure out which one’s right.”

Mr. Manter said it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity. “I think the opportunity is here,” he said. “A spirited group of individuals is going to do something that we are not going to be able to give the students or the community, and I’d hate to pass it up. I believe it will be carefully monitored and well done. I think we need to be thankful that we have this.”

Monday night’s vote was the latest chapter in an ongoing debate that began when representatives of MV@Play, a newly formed nonprofit group, unveiled an ambitious, privately funded $12 million project to create a centralized athletic facility for use by the high school, youth programs, summer camps, and adult leagues. The group was organized by three community members and parents — David Wallis, Terry Donahue, and Robert “Spike” Smith — who identified the need for the updated and expanded athletic facility. The group has been working with two representatives from Gale Associates, an engineering and consulting firm that specializes in athletic facility planning and design.

The first phase of the three-phase plan is to remove the existing track, which athletic director Mark McCarthy said is in such poor shape that it will no longer be certified for use, and install a new track and field facility with a turf infield for multi-sport use. The proposed plan includes widening the radius of the track to about 120 feet to allow for a 210-foot infield, adding stadium seating for 500 people, installing field lighting, and creating track equipment and facilities, such as long- and triple-jump pits, a pole vault box and cover, and a discus and shot put ring and cage. The estimated cost is $3.5 million, and, due to the track’s condemnation, the funds must be raised prior to construction in September.

Since the project was first proposed, community members have expressed concerns with the synthetic turf material, and any corresponding health risks. Others had concerns about the feasibility of funding any necessary maintenance, upkeep, and replacement of the synthetic turf in the long term, and any potential impacts on the watershed.

“I wonder why we are not looking at how we can keep our grass in better shape, and throwing our money into irrigation systems, and using our local labor,” Samantha Look said. “We have so many people on the Island who are in landscaping businesses who could be employed or be helpful in this process, and we know kids can play on grass and be healthy. The crumb rubber was thought to be great, and now they’ve realized that it’s not. The organic infill is totally untested.”

Susan Bologna, who said she is the mother of two aspiring athletes, was specifically concerned about the use of silica sand, and any potential carcinogenic effects of the material.

“As a mother, I can’t even imagine letting my daughter run around on those fields, just knowing that could be a possibility in her future,” she said. “It just is something that I’m not comfortable with. I think that we should know more before we are able to accept putting something of this nature out there.”

Deplorable condition

Those in support of the synthetic turf cited the health and safety risks associated with the poor state of the current athletic fields, lowering daily maintenance labor, and installing fields that can withstand the usage of an entire community. Several student-athletes spoke up about torn ACLs and other injuries from stepping in holes, and having to practice in the gym due to wet or muddy fields.

Jeff Carlson, property manager of Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, said the private club uses coconut core to surround the edges of their pond and stop erosion, and it has not contributed to water-quality problems.

“We don’t have enough real estate for the amount of things we want to do for our kids between soccer, softball, field hockey — across the board there’s just not enough; our programs are growing across the Island,” parent, coach, and teacher Matt Malowski said. The youth soccer program has doubled or tripled in the past few years, he said.

“I appreciate wanting to take your foot off the gas pedal, but our feet have been off the gas pedal for a long time, and our kids have paid the price for that,” Mr. Malowski said. “You’ve heard about how bad the fields are. These guys have a solution. They have an answer to the problem, and I’m not hearing a lot of other solutions here tonight.”

Donald Herman, who retired this year after 28 years of teaching and coaching at the high school, said the Vineyard’s athletic fields are in “deplorable condition.”

“I don’t know if there’s anybody, or there’s very few of you in this building, who have seen more facilities across the state than I have over the years,” he said. Athletes must develop an entirely different skill set to play on turf fields, which in turn puts Vineyard athletes at a disadvantage when they play on turf fields off-Island, Mr. Herman said. “It gives a true balance,” he said. “The game is played faster, it’s played more competitively, and it’s played better. There’s going to be risks with everything you do. Unless you’re prepared to cut varsity sports here, which is an absurdity, then you really only have one alternative, and that’s to go with this proposal.”

Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea said he has been consulting with schools around the state who installed similar athletic facilities with synthetic turf fields. Next steps include kicking off the fundraising for phase one of the project, potentially creating a user-fee structure for the athletic complex to go toward maintenance costs, and completing the licensing agreement between MV@Play and the high school.

At the end of the meeting, school committee member Colleen McAndrews said she hopes the community can band together to support the approved proposal.

“Everybody’s opinions have been heard, and to make anything in this community go forward, we have to have everybody’s support, so I would really caution anybody feeling like they are in a situation where they’re being defeated or not being listened to,” she said. “That’s not true. This is going to be a long process, and the only way it’s going to happen is if the community supports it, so please remember that — we all need to go forward working together for the kids.”