A public hearing held by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) Thursday night on phase one of the proposed Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) field project included testimony from environmental groups, grass experts, and several members of the school athletic community.
The project, which is currently being reviewed by the MVC as a development of regional impact (DRI), includes plans for one synthetic turf field surrounded by a 400-meter track, and one natural grass field, along with other components such as reconfigured parking, a grandstand and pressbox, and a field house.
The synthetic turf multipurpose field has been a point of concern for environmental groups, who say it would go against Island initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate pollution.
Commissioner Doug Sederholm, who led the hearing, stressed that no matters involving toxicology, chemical concerns, or crumb rubber would be discussed. He said MVRHS and its designer, Huntress Associates, have emphasized that crumb rubber will not be used in the production of the field, so any testimony in that regard would be irrelevant.
He also said testimony on toxicology would be the focus of the March 4 hearing, where chemical tests from the commission’s hired environmental consulting firm, Horsley Witten, will be discussed.
The first half of the meeting consisted of presentations from Dardanella Slavin of the Field Fund and Amanda Farber of Safe Healthy Playing Fields, along with natural grass experts.
Slavin said the installation of a plastic field at the high school is not essential, given the alternatives that are available. With the proper rebuild and maintenance program, Slavin said, grass can take the high level of use necessary for the MVRHS fields, and she wondered if soil science and grass turf care could be woven into the school’s horticulture program.
She added that the Island is working to reduce carbon emissions and plastic consumption in order to prioritize climate action. “The installation of a plastic field is antithetical to the direction the Island is heading,” she said. “A plastic field means committing to buying 2.5 acres of plastic carpet every eight to 10 years in perpetuity.”
Apart from production, maintenance, and disposal of a synthetic field, Slavin raised her concerns around the plastic grass blades that may shed from the field and enter the Island ecosystem.
Plans for the synthetic field project include a filtration system designed to trap plastic grass fibers when they shed from wind or runoff, although Slavin said it is “negligent” to think that no particles or leaching would occur.
She highlighted the sensitive area the field would lie in — two critical watersheds, one containing the shellfish hatchery and the other a Zone II wellhead protection area. She also mentioned that claims surrounding the potential to recycle the plastic carpet at the end of its useful life have not been proven.
Jack Higgins, an agronomist for EarthWorks, said that with proper maintenance and a well-constructed irrigation system, a natural grass field can serve as a method for carbon sequestration and prevent nitrate leaching from entering waterways.
Jerad Minick of the Natural Grass Advisory Group agreed that the conditions of the MVRHS fields are deplorable, but said that grass fields don’t fail because of high traffic — they fail because they are either not constructed properly, not maintained properly, or both.
He said the Island has porous soil that has good drainage and contains plenty of organic matter, which makes for a solid starting point for a healthy and successful grass field.
A number of representatives of environmental groups spoke against the synthetic field, including Suzan Bellincampi of Mass Audubon and Brendan O’Neill of the Vineyard Conservation Society.
“It is the case that both natural grass and synthetic playing surfaces wear out. The difference is that synthetic surfaces are not renewable, they are not sustainable,” O’Neill said. “Natural grass surfaces can be renewed in a sustainable manner, provided there is community will.”
The latter half of the meeting focused mainly on testimony from Island coaches, who stressed athletics as being an essential part of an educational institution, and a priority that promotes student success and well-being.
Rebecca Nutton, varsity field hockey coach at MVRHS, spoke on behalf of the entire field hockey community, saying that the field project is integral and desperately needed, and the design is appropriately oriented toward student athletic achievement and school pride.
“Playing a sport has a huge impact on the direction of [students’] lives,” Nutton said. “If sport participation is a life experience that has the possibility to benefit so many of our Island youth and families, then it must be invested in as a necessity.”
She added that for years, the school has failed to adequately meet the needs of student athletes. Because the majority of MVRHS competitors on the Cape and in New England play on synthetic turf, Nutton said, “We are at a disadvantage before the game even starts,” because players are competing on a surface they have never trained on.
“About 70 percent of opponents on the MV competitive fall schedule use synthetic turf,” Nutton said. For athletes who have access to synthetic playing surfaces, Nutton said, their prospects for collegiate play and other opportunities are greatly increased.
She also touched on the element of pride that having a quality athletic campus provides for student athletes, and the impact on self-identity playing on a decrepit field can have. “It’s heartbreaking to travel with them to play league competitors whose facilities, when you step foot on them, send a very different message,” Nutton said.
Longtime track and field and cross-country coach Joe Schroeder also spoke on how deplorable field conditions have affected the lives of student athletes.
“In 2017, the track was so bad we had zero home meets. Our kids were off-Island for the entire season,” Schroeder said. “It is not out of the realm of possibility that we will not have any more home meets after this spring.”
He added that the track and field and cross-country teams have been collateral damage of the synthetic turf debate, noting that other sports will still have a surface to play on (even if conditions are bad), but his teams will not have that option, as the track has reached its usable end.
Over the years, Schroeder said, he has seen athletes injure themselves due to a situation that could have been avoided, if it weren’t for the degrading track and infield. “I get it, injuries are part of every sport, but if it’s something that could have been prevented, it immediately affects our team, or even their next sports season,” he said.
Both of Schroeder’s daughters’ sports seasons were cut short due to ACL injuries, and he said the condition of the field contributed to the severity of those injuries. “They both lost two seasons while recovering, so just think about that for a minute,” he said. “Athletes are part of our extended classroom — our labs are on the fields, on the track, on the diamonds, in the State Forest, on the links, on the hardwood, and on the ice. Opportunities exist as much as they do in the physical classroom, so why make it harder for these opportunities to exist?”
Toward the end of the meeting, Doug Ruskin, a West Tisbury resident who has been critical of artificial turf, said he has questions about the long-term financial implications such a major project would have for Island towns.
Ruskin said the cost figures in the project proposal show an artificial turf field would cost less than a third of natural grass to maintain — $7,500 for an artificial turf field, versus $25,000 for grass, annually.
But the $500,000 replacement cost every eight to 10 years “can’t be ignored,” he said, and after factoring in the cost of a new plastic carpet, the annual cost of synthetic turf would more than double the cost of natural grass.
“In addition, I have seen no projected operational or maintenance costs for any of the related infrastructure, so I see the presentation as flawed at best,” he said.
In response to some of the presentations, Chris Huntress, owner of Huntress Associates, pointed out that several of the photos shown by the Field Fund included products that are not planned for the high school. He added that comprehensive environmental and toxicology testing has been conducted per the recommendation of the high school, and that testimony will be heard on March 4. “I can guarantee the staff and administration only want to install products and materials that are clean, safe, and healthy. I encourage you to please tune in on the fourth and listen to the science,” Huntress said.
He said representatives from Tencate, the manufacturer of the proposed synthetic surface, will be available at the meeting to answer questions regarding a turf recycling facility in the Netherlands.
For the high school, Huntress said, natural grass will remain the backbone of the athletic campus. But by including one synthetic turf field, he said, the grass fields will be able to rest and recuperate.
The final person to speak at the hearing was Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith, who said the goal of the high school has always been to bring the proposal to an objective review, “and we feel like we are getting that here at the commission.”
Smith made an announcement in response to questions regarding private funding of the project.
“I have always maintained that we would have this project funded on private donations. Right now, we have no donors, we don’t have a donor list,” he said. “With any kind of project like this that supports kids, we will have people approach. It is, right now, not appropriate for us to engage in formal discussions about donations to a project where there have been several iterations, and we have not gotten the project to permitting.”