Oak Bluffs planners hear turf debate

Board says it will work in concert with MVC to provide safe athletic fields for high schoolers.

Oak Bluffs planning board chair Ewell Hopkins says he and fellow planners will work together with the Martha's Vineyard Commission to provide safe athletic fields at the high school. — Lucas Thors

The Oak Bluffs planning board heard from both sides of a long-running debate surrounding a proposed synthetic turf field at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

Most recently, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were found in components of synthetic turf fields off-Island, and that’s triggered some renewed concerns by those in favor of grass fields.

Some Islanders say it is possible that these chemicals could be part of the fields that will be at the high school, but school officials say they are just as concerned about this emerging issue as other parents and community members, and will take the necessary steps to provide a safe playing surface for students. 

Oak Bluffs resident Susan Desmarais was at the meeting to read a letter and submit it into the record for the board. Her letter described her battle with cancer for a large part of her life, spurred from long-term exposure to a chemical called diethylstilbestrol (DES). The chemical was prescribed to her mother to prevent miscarriage during labor. Similar to PFAS in that it is a “forever chemical” that does not degrade and bioaccumulates in animals and people, Desmarais said, the toxicity of DES was undisclosed by the pharmaceutical industry for years. It was only when Massachusetts General conducted an independent study of the drug that the long-term health repercussions were uncovered.

“Science, time, and research keeps uncovering chemical effects that weren’t previously known,” Desmarais said. “When you are talking about any substance, it has to be independent testing — someone whose livelihood does not come from turf. The turf industry can’t test itself.”

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea assured the board that school officials are taking active steps to confirm with turf suppliers that no PFAS or similar compounds will be used in the project at the high school.

School committee member Kris O’Brien said she wants the community to judge the project based on the materials the synthetic field will contain, instead of what other fields off-Island contain.

“Because an application has not yet been formally made, all of the elements inside that have not been formally stated,” O’Brien said. “The discussion of crumb rubber for this project is irrelevant. It does not contain the backing either. Referencing things this project does not contain angers and inflames the community.”

She said the project will contain plastic grass fibers. “Let’s talk about that,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien referenced a statement by multinational turf manufacturer TenCate grass, stating that they do not use PFAS in any of their products.

“The pressure should be on us to choose a supplier whose products do not contain these chemicals,” O’Brien said. 

Going forward, Oak Bluffs planning board chair Ewell Hopkins said he wants scheduled meetings to continue to act as a forum for the public to articulate their positions on both sides of the project.

He also said Oak Bluffs planners will be working closely with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) to hire professional guidance and expertise on the issue.

“I would like to point out some laws that were recently voted in about peer review,” Hopkins said. “We will be able to levy fees to bring in professionals.”

Hopkins referenced one zoning bylaw that was most recently amended this year. “We more than ever have to understand our roles, responsibilities, and authority, and how they work in concert with the commission’s roles, so we can address this pending application in the most responsible way,” Hopkins said.

The field project at the high school must be submitted to the MVC as a mandatory referral.

He said all the proposed materials suggested in the current application are allowable, and the planning board does not have the authority to ban a synthetic field proposal. “We can improve [the application] and try to make the fields as safe as possible,” Hopkins said.

The planning board does not refer applications to the MVC without an opinion, and Hopkins said there will be plenty of time to research the issue and include it in the referral.

One tool Hopkins said is available to local boards and the commission is the ability to condition decisions. “If there is a concern about a certain component and we condition it that way, it’s pretty much absolute,” Hopkins said.

He explained how conditions are one way of holding an applicant to their word. “If the applicant says there will be no harmful chemicals in the synthetic turf, we expect that to be the case,” Hopkins said, “We will do testing, and if we find these types of chemicals, it will not be approved.”


Oak Bluffs may go green

Oak Bluffs is on its way to being designated a Green Community, which will encourage the town to have important conversations on energy usage, conservation practices, and could open up opportunities for grant funding.

According to Bill Cleary, who will be heading the town’s efforts to go green, some of the criteria to become a green community have already been achieved, while some are currently in the works. 

“This will be a great opportunity for the town to apply for grants and fulfill future needs,” Cleary said.

Hopkins said Oak Bluffs’ nonexempt fleet of emergency vehicles is already entirely electric, and the police will be all-electric at some point in the near future.

“I am really excited about the green designation. It will give guidance on environmental materials to be used in construction and landscaping, as well as energy consumption,” Hopkins said.

The designation requires a Stretch Code to be implemented in all future construction in Oak Bluffs, oriented toward energy-efficient construction. A Stretch Code is a locally mandated energy code that is more aggressive than a base code associated with new construction. 

“That may be tough at first, but it will be a huge benefit to this community,” Hopkins said.