Chilmark selectmen hear from both sides in turf debate

Following their decision to refer the project to the MVC, Chilmark selectmen held another meeting to give proponents of MV@Play their say.

Chlmark selectmen, from left, James Malkin, chairman Warren Doty, and Bill Rossi, and executive secretary Tim Carroll, listened to both sides. — Rich Saltzberg

Updated 9:30 am, Friday

Two weeks ago, Chilmark selectmen met minus one member, and after listening to opponents of MV@Play criticize the ambitious turf field project, voted to refer it to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) as a development of regional impact. MV@Play supporters protested that they were unaware the topic would even be on the agenda.

On Tuesday night, selectmen Warren Doty, Bill Rossi, and Jim Malkin, who was absent for the vote, revisited the issue with supporters and opponents in the room.

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee vote to approve the use of synthetic turf with an organic infill for a new track infield ignited debate over plans by MV@Play to rely on synthetic turf versus natural grass for the first phase of the nonprofit’s ambitious project.

MV@Play proposes a 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 first phase of the three-phase plan is to remove the existing track and install a new track and field facility with a turf infield for multisport use. The estimated cost is $3.5 million.

The entire scope of the project would include the new track and field facility with turf infield, a new regulation baseball field, three new soccer fields, two new regulation softball fields, a varsity-game football field, a new volleyball court, a sports medicine trainers’ facility, locker rooms, public bathrooms, a storage and maintenance building, and parking and infrastructure redesign. Two of the fields, as well as the baseball and softball outfields, will be natural grass, according to the master plan.

The other side

On Tuesday night, Chilmark selectmen sought opinions on the annual maintenance cost, warranty, longevity, replacement cost, environmental impact, and health effects of the project. They also asked about the willingness of the group to proceed through the DRI process.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in that topic, and people wanted a chance to discuss it again, so I agreed to put it on the agenda for more discussion,” selectmen chairman Warren Doty told those in the room.

Selectman Bill Rossi said he was moved to revisit the discussion after some “fairly angry calls” a day after the vote to refer the project. Mr. Rossi said the meeting and its agenda had been properly posted, but “representatives of MV@Play weren’t here to present their side.”

He said he also received a call from the chairman of the Oak Bluffs planning board, who expressed disappointment that his board was being “bypassed” in favor of the MVC.

On Tuesday night, supporters had their say. “This is just an outstanding opportunity for us at the high school,” Martha’s Vineyard Schools Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea said. “I support this project wholeheartedly.”

Mr. D’Andrea told the selectmen, “The school committee went through a very thoughtful process before they voted. They looked at studies, they held two forums — there was much discussion. It’s a committee that is very thoughtful and considers all angles before they act.

“Certainly the cost of maintenance would go down with an artificial surface,” he said. He pointed out that other towns and school districts with similar turf are able to budget for maintenance and afford eventual replacement, so Martha’s Vineyard should be able to do so too.

Selectman James Malkin asked him whether he was in support of a review of the project by the MVC.

“I don’t want this to get hung up in a process that’s going to derail the opportunity that we have in front of us,” Mr. D’Andrea said, referring to the sometimes grueling and time-consuming DRI review process. “That’s what concerns me.”

Pros and cons

Mv@Play was organized by three community members and parents, David Wallis, Terry Donahue, and Robert “Spike” Smith. On Tuesday, Mr. Smith took aim at some of the charges lobbed by critics.

“Replacement cost is about $450,000,” MV@Play founding member Robert “Spike” Smith said, “not $1 million. If you look at the cost analysis per the life of the field versus a well-maintained grass field, the numbers are very similar. We would not choose to use synthetic turf because of the money. We chose it because it was the field that would take the abuse that we’re going to ask it to take.”

He added that “a well-maintained field is good for about 200 events a year. A lighted turf field can carry 750 events. So you’re getting 3 fields for 1, basically.”

Mr. Malkin asked whether or not MV@Play objected to a review of their proposal by the MVC. Mr. Smith reminded him that Matt Poole of Chilmark, a member of Mv@Play, wrote to Chilmark selectmen stating that MV@Play “welcomes the referral to the MVC.” Mr. Smith added, “What I’m worried about is the process.”

On a related issue, Mr. Smith told the selectmen that the Oak Bluffs building inspector does not agree with the view held by project engineers Gale Associates that the replacement of the track and field is a landscaping project and therefore does not require a building permit. He said the building inspector has failed to cite a statute that has bearing on the matter.

Susan Desmarais of Oak Bluffs told selectmen she thought the project suffered from too many unexplored questions: “Why not make the referral and let the body on the Island that is charged with factoring in all of these different pieces of information make the decision?”

Robert Lionette of Chilmark, a member of the school committee, said he saw merit in an MVC review. He also said that he had recently received an MVC letter forwarded by the superintendent. The letter suggested a comprehensive review of all projects underway at the high school — a review as expansive as the review that was undertaken in the lead-up to the opening of the YMCA. Mr. Lionette said water, sewer, parking, and traffic flow appeared to be commission concerns: “There are a lot of variables, and I’m no closer to getting firmer answers now then when we started, and quite frankly I think some of this — and I’m not going to throw my colleagues under the bus — but some of this is beyond us. I’m not a water resource expert.”

David Wallis, president of MV@Play, said Gale Associates has laced the legal paperwork that will go out to project contractors with clauses addressing health and environmental concerns: “There is no way that we’re going to put down something that is going to be of health concern for our kids on-Island that is not met with absolutely the strictest of contractual description.”

Mr. Wallis defended MV@Play’s management of the issue by pointing out that his nonprofit has been receptive to public concern about a track composed of crumb rubber. That’s why a switch was made to an aggregate of “coconut husk, cork, and sand,” he said.

Selectman Rossi asked him to talk about the long-term health effects of synthetic turf. Mr. Wallis said he could not speak to the exact health details at play.

“We want to put the best surface down that’s going to handle the traffic that’s going to go there,” he said.

“The whole problem with the health argument on this subject is that it’s become politicized,” Mr. Smith said. He added that much of the information circulating about heavy metals, as they relate to the project, is outdated, and that MV@Play will be inspecting the turf for such pollutants.

“We will hire a third-party testing agency,” he said “They will test the product before it gets installed and they will test it after it gets installed. If it doesn’t meet what our specs say, it will come up.” He added that other materials in the project are being conflated with the hazards of the crumb rubber.

Rebekah Thompson, a leading member of Vineyarders For Grass Fields, took aim at the use of artificial turf.

“Infill and plastic grass are not regulated as children’s products, and therefore the regulations are very, very, very different than they would be if it was a children’s toy, for example,” she said.

She said that a major manufacturer of artificial field turf recently went on record stating its current product still contains lead. She also said that if there was an easy way to purge the contaminant, the manufacturer would have done it. She said lead-tainted products should not be on the grounds of the high school, because there is no acceptable level of lead exposure for children.

“If you’re not 100 percent sure of something’s safety, you have to err on the side of caution,” she said

Ms. Thompson called for a thorough examination of alternative materials and solutions, and a transparent process overall. In her opinion, the MVC was a move in the right direction.

MVC member Joan Malkin of Chilmark, weighed in — at the request of Mr. Rossi — as to whether she thought the project qualified as a DRI. “I hadn’t thought about it thoroughly,” she said, but the letter Ms. Thompson wrote “outlined a number of potential issues.”

She declined to offer a view as to what the MVC might do, beyond saying that runoff could be an issue, and that any increase in vehicular volume, “especially on that road,” may be of particular concern.

In other business

In other business, on the recommendation of Police Chief Brian Cioffi, the selectmen voted unanimously to appoint Kyle Sutherland as a summer special police officer. They also unanimously voted to appoint Pierce Harrer and Nicole Whitney as traffic officers.

Selectmen vowed to take action after listening to a report from beach committee member Margaret Maida about livery drivers unlawfully accessing the Squibnocket Beach parking lot. According to Ms. Maida, the drivers frequently claimed to be turning around, but after gaining access to the lot, they would empty their vans and let passengers pose for pictures.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Ms. Maida referred to wedding party photos. Ms. Maida said she did not specify the reason van drivers pulled into the lot, only that there was a problem.