Updated Feb. 27
The Oak Bluffs planning board has referred the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School athletic field improvement proposal to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) for review as a development of regional impact (DRI).
According to the cover letter of the referral issued by planning board chairman Ewell Hopkins, the school has “asserted legal limitations on the town of Oak Bluffs’ authority under zoning bylaws” by invoking the Dover Amendment in the municipal review process.
Hopkins said in the letter that “the applicant asserts similar limitations on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s scope of review.”
The proposal has been referred to the commission as a modification to a previous DRI. While it is ultimately up to the MVC and its counsel to determine the entity’s legal authority in this case, Hopkins wrote that he does “not wish the absence of a municipal referral to complicate the MVC’s ability to oversee this application, and so this referral is being made without the full planning board being able to formulate initial thoughts and impressions.”
The Times spoke with Hopkins later by phone, who said school officials have demonstrated that they are not willing to work cooperatively with the town. “There are too many inconsistencies. We want to make sure the commission was not hindered by this move, so we referred it,” Hopkins said. “The commission now has the ability to assert their authority, or they can relinquish it to the Dover Amendment as well.”
But Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith said the school has tried to work with the town and regional authorities since day one of the application submission.
“From the very beginning, we have intended to work with the town, not against them,” Smith said. “The Dover Amendment simply highlights the value of the project as an educational use. We have been fully transparent throughout, including informing the OBPB through our original application which clearly states that because this is a project by an educational institution that we are highlighting MGL 40A, Section 3.”
Smith said the Dover Amendment does not preclude a full and in-depth review by the commission. “The Dover Amendment in no way precludes a full and thorough review by the town and the commission regarding questions about health, safety, and the environment. The schools understand and embrace this. We want nothing more than to be responsible regarding the health and welfare of our Island.”
According to Smith, the project is meant to highlight the safety of student athletes, and be a much-needed improvement to the athletic campus at the high school.
“We at the school believe this project addresses concerns about the environment, safety, and even cost,” Smith said. “To suggest otherwise is completely unfounded on the merits and pre-judges our application before we have the opportunity to make a presentation and address any and all concerns.”
Smith said school officials will continue to work with the commission, and fully comply with any requirements during the review process.
“If they invoke a toxicologist report or any similar review, we will welcome that. We want to work with them, and we want these fields to be healthy and safe for our Island,” Smith said.
Hopkins called referring the proposal to the MVC “the responsible and adult thing to do.” He said the planning board has only 60 days to make a determination on the proposal, and either choose to refer or not.
In most cases, Hopkins said, applicants have worked with the town and provided extensions to ensure the proper degree of oversight, but not in this case. “I don’t have any confidence that would be their [the school’s] posture,” Hopkins said.
The planning board will continue to hold public hearings and submit testimony and its findings to the commission during its review process.
Hopkins said he is concerned with the commission’s ability to provide adequate oversight under intense pressure by school officials. “I am very concerned about the political might of any applicant influencing the process. I am worried there may be improper planning due to severe pressure being applied by the school politically and through popularity,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said he hopes the MVC will scrutinize the school proposal to the same degree as they would any other applicant. “We should all be held to the same level of scrutiny. Your desire for a project should not dictate the pace of the process,” Hopkins said.
But Chris Huntress of Huntress Associates, the school’s designer for the track and field project, said he expects there to be an in-depth review by the MVC, and the school will do everything it can to provide necessary information to make the process run smoothly.
“I expect this to be a three- to four-month process,” Huntress said. “There has been a lot of concern around the Dover Amendment. But the Dover doesn’t limit the MVC’s ability to ask us questions, and for us to answer them. We want to be helpful in facilitating this ongoing process.”
According to Huntress, the Dover Amendment was invoked in order to limit the MVC and the planning board from “placing conditions on the project that would make it unbuildable, whether financially or physically.”
Huntress said that the Vineyard has a significant number of zoning overlays, including some sensitive water zone protection districts.
“We are cataloguing each one of these overlays, and working on how to meet the standards of review of the commission,” Huntress said.
Told by The Times that the planning board intends to continue to hold public hearings and submit testimony to the MVC, Huntress said, “Any meeting that the planning board will hold, we are willing to attend and support them in any way we can.”
Updated to include additional comments from assistant superintendent Richie Smith. — Ed.