The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) has entered its public hearing period for phase one of the proposed athletic campus project at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS).
In 2018, the high school hired Huntress Associates of Andover to create an athletic campus master plan that would improve the sports fields, construct a new track, allow better pedestrian access, improve traffic flow, and integrate each element into the overall MVRHS capital improvement plan.
Phase one of the project is estimated to cost $7.7 million, and includes elements such as an eight-lane, 400-meter track, one grass and one synthetic turf field, new lighting for a 700-seat grandstand, and a new facility containing restrooms, concessions, locker rooms, and a weight room.
Construction costs for this project will be privately funded, while the turf manufacturer, Tencate Grass, will handle maintenance for the first two years, then hand that responsibility over to the high school.
For decades, sports officials at the high school, student athletes, and members of the community have sought improvements to the athletic campus. Now, with the main stadium field dotted with holes and divots, and the track nearing the end of its useful life, the commission will weigh the benefits and detriments of the proposed project.
So far, development of regional impact coordinator for the MVC Alex Elvin said, the commission has received 254 written correspondences from Island organizations and individuals, both advocating for and opposing the project.
The decision to implement a synthetic field in the project has raised concerns with environmental organizations on-Island, such as the Vineyard Conservation Society, Island Grown Initiative, and Felix Neck.
Those organizations and individuals opposing the project cite athlete safety and public health concerns, and suggest that the construction of a synthetic turf field on-Island would go against recent sustainability initiatives that seek to reduce carbon emissions and the use of plastics.
Alternatively, proponents of the project say the failed track and deteriorating fields not only pose a physical danger to student athletes, but are deleterious to their sense of school pride and self-worth.
With 160 participants attending the first of multiple public Zoom hearing sessions Thursday, and 50 members of the public signed up to present, commissioners said everyone will get a chance to speak on the matter, but will be heard in the order they registered.
Because of the order in which people registered to speak, no opponents of the project were heard during the first session, but will be allowed to present during future public hearings.
The central concern for environmental organizations that submitted written testimony deals with the makeup of components in the synthetic playing field, such as microplastics. Although the project will not use crumb rubber as an infill, studies show the plastic grass fibers in synthetic turf deteriorate over time. Chris Huntress of Huntress Associates said he has included in the plan a micron filter sock that will largely eliminate the proliferation of the plastic grass into the environment through runoff. Additionally, groundwater monitoring wells will be installed at either end of the field to test for plastic compounds and other potentially harmful manmade chemicals, such as per- and poly-flouralalkyl substances (PFAS).
Elvin said there is still potential for the grass pieces to spread through contact with athletes.
With the project located in a Zone II wellhead protection area, within both the Lagoon Pond and Sengekontacket watersheds, Huntress said, his company is making sure they are taking the necessary measures to test products for any harmful compounds.
Cost and maintenance will also be a major factor in the commission’s final determination.
According to Elvin, the synthetic field would incur the majority cost through acquisition and construction, whereas a natural grass field would be more costly when it comes to long-term maintenance.
Being in a protected aquifer zone, Huntress said, a synthetic turf field would reduce nitrogen loading by 264 pounds annually by not requiring fertilizer. He added that a synthetic field would reduce irrigation demand at the high school by about 1.2 million gallons of water each year.
Another major issue raised by some community members and organizations is the task of replacing the synthetic turf after it has reached the end of its life. Huntress stressed that he has a cradle-to-cradle agreement with the manufacturer that they will pay for the removal and shipment of the turf to a designated recycling facility.
If Tencate cannot fulfill its agreement, a $50,000 escrow account backed by the FDIC will be released to the high school.
The only existing artificial turf recycling plant, GBN, is located in the Netherlands, and although they are slated to construct a facility in America, that development has not been confirmed.
If the field cannot be recycled in the U.S. Elvin said, it will have to be shipped overseas, which would widen the carbon footprint associated with the project.
According to a number of sports officials at the high school, the demand placed on the existing fields has created a hazard for student athletes.
Huntress said a synthetic field is “a workhorse” and can accommodate up to 1,800 annual hours of usage, which would give the other natural grass fields time to recover, especially during the rainy season.
MVRHS athletic director Mark McCarthy said roughly 400 athletes use the fields each year, and the stadium field sees only about 200 hours of annual use. But the level of dilapidation of the stadium field makes it such that one lacrosse or field hockey game played in bad weather can destroy the playing surface for the remainder of the season.
He added that other sports teams are wary of competing on MVRHS fields and the track because they are concerned about injury. “The track needs replacing now, not this year, not next year, now,” he said.
Facilities manager Mike Taus said maintaining the fields at the high school using temporary fixes is no longer possible. “I have a very difficult time maintaining dirt that has been ripped up; that’s it, people,” he said.
Donald Herman, high school football coach of 31 years, said the overuse of fields has created a dangerous situation for athletes, and many games have been canceled because of bad weather — not because the boats were canceled, but because the field would be rendered unusable.
“Every year, before the first pregame practice, I line the football team up on one endline shoulder by shoulder, and we walk the length and width of the field and mark off holes that we fill in with buckets of sand each year. If we don’t do this, there is no doubt in my mind someone will suffer severe ankle and knee injury,” Herman said. “That’s not a concern of mine on turf.”
The last to speak at the hearing was 2019 MVRHS graduate Mackenzie Condon, who now runs track at Harvard.
She asked that Islanders recognize the importance of school sports in building character, pride, and confidence in students.
Over her years as an MVRHS athlete, Condon said, the condition of the fields has made goals like winning seasons, competing in state championships, and preparing for college recruitment seem “impossible.”
“Every year we go without a respectable home track and facility, these students who desperately need athletics to teach them lessons will aim lower and lower,” Condon said.
The next public hearing session is scheduled for Feb. 4 at 7 pm via Zoom.
Individuals who wish to speak can register with MVC executive assistant Lucy Morrison before 2 pm on the day of the next hearing by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.