Natural grass wins turf battle at schools

School leaders support natural grass proposal for athletic fields.

A prior year's MVRHS school girls lacrosse team. —Stacey Rupolo

After a yearlong debate, school leaders are endorsing natural grass instead of synthetic turf for the repair of the deteriorating athletic fields, both at the high school and Island-wide.

The Martha’s Vineyard High School committee voted unanimously on May 11 to move forward with a proposal from Vineyarders for Grass Fields, a local group that has advocated for natural grass athletic fields. The sudden turn of events came after MV@Play, a group of parents who proposed raising money to update and expand the athletic fields with a combination of grass and synthetic turf, announced its decision to postpone a meeting with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on May 11. Until last week, the school had backed MV@Play.

In their announcement, MV@Play representatives said they wanted to give Vineyarders for Grass Fields an opportunity to vet its concept and work with the school committee and administration to determine its viability. They also said they would provide the engineering specifications for the fields to Vineyarders for Grass Fields, a design from Gale Associates, an engineering and consulting firm based in Weymouth that specializes in athletic-facility planning. Days later, the school committee learned that the design is owned by Gale Associates, not MV@Play.

Matt D’Andrea, superintendent of schools, told The Times on Monday that the school committee gave the green light to start negotiating a contract with Vineyarders for Grass Fields, although they are still in a contract and license agreement with MV@Play. Once a new agreement is reached with Vineyarders for Grass Fields, which Mr. D’Andrea estimated would happen within two to four weeks, the school can rescind its agreement with MV@Play.

“Rather than engage in a contentious debate at the commission, this could be accepted as a compromise,” Mr. D’Andrea said of the school committee’s recent change of heart.

The turf debate has in fact been a contentious one. The school committee has held two public meetings on the plan, each of which drew 250 to 300 residents. To date, the MVC has received more than 90 public comments on the plan, including one threatening a lawsuit if artificial turf is installed.

Since the project was first proposed, community members have expressed concerns with the synthetic turf material, and possible 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.

David Wallis, president of MV@Play, said the group applauds Vineyarders for Grass Fields for the task they are undertaking. After two years of working on the MV@Play proposal, Mr. Wallis said he still feels strongly about their proposal, and believes it’s a good proposal, but he is excited that Vineyarders for Grass Fields is taking on the challenge, and hopes the school and the group continue to vet the new proposal.

“If there’s any opportunity that could help the kids, the school, and the community on this, we really feel strongly for us not to get in the way of that,” Mr. Wallis said.

A new proposal

The natural grass proposal looks to fund a new track for the high school, upgrade its athletic fields, and provide some ongoing maintenance to athletic fields Island-wide, Rebekah Thomson, a spokeswoman for the group, told The Times on Monday.

“MV@Play shined a light on this problem,” Ms. Thomson said of the dire need to repair the fields. Vineyarders for Grass Fields, made up of dozens of Island residents, opposed synthetic turf, but recognized the need to upgrade the athletic fields, identifying the high school track as the first priority.

With the proposal now set in motion, the group set up a fund through the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard, referred to as the Field Fund, to begin fundraising. They plan to use the fund to cover the project, estimated at $6 million. A $2 million track is included in that cost, with the overall project requiring public bids.

MV@Play had proposed a three-phased project set at $12 million. The first phase of the project — to remove the existing track and install a new track and field facility with a turf infield — had an estimated cost of $3.5 million.

“We’re moving full steam ahead now,” Ms. Thomson said. “The track needs to go in this summer and fall if there’s going to be a home track season next spring.”

All about maintenance

Both MV@Play and Vineyarders for Grass Fields want to improve the conditions of the athletic fields.The difference in the proposals, however, was that where MV@Play aimed to centralize athletics at the high school, Vineyarders for Grass Fields took a regional approach by spreading usage out and improving fields around the Island.

“If we get them in better shape, then we won’t have to concentrate use at the high school,” Ms. Thomson said. Vineyarders for Grass Fields wondered whether the poor condition was attributed to overuse or lack of maintenance.

Grass expert Jerad Minnick of the Natural Grass Advisory Group, which looks at providing solutions to the challenges of maintaining natural grass fields, determined it was due to a lack of proper maintenance. His advisory position, plus all potential design and advisory costs, were budgeted for $50,000 in the Field Fund endowment, Ms. Thomson said. 

Mr. Minnick assessed fields around the Island, including Oak Bluffs School, West Tisbury School, Veterans Field, and the Edgartown Boys and Girls Club.

“He said that none of our fields were overused,” Ms. Thomson said. “But that they were all just undermaintained.” So they developed a proposal that focused on basic maintenance practices, with an endowed position for an Island grass superintendent that the group allocated $75,000 for, who would oversee field maintenance — mowing, fertilizing, aerating, overseeding, and monitoring irrigation.

All natural

The proposal calls for an organic program that’s in accordance with Oak Bluffs and Island regulations around groundwater quality and fertilizers, using natural and organic fertilizers, soil conditioners, compost mixes, and top-dressings.

Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown is one of the first all-organically maintained courses in the country, and Jeff Carlson, superintendent of the golf course, offered his unpaid expertise to the group, as did Craig Saunders, a local hydrologist.

The group plans to take current samples of the groundwater, and Mr. Saunders recommended installing three test wells for continual nitrogen monitoring, a responsibility the grass superintendent would handle.

Concerns about groundwater and potential harm from fertilizers and chemicals are valid, which is why the group is taking an all-organic approach, Ms. Thomson said. “We are completely committed to that,” she said.

Updated on May 18 to reflect clarifications of cost allocations.