What’s next for the high school field project?

Water Resource Protection Overlay District will trigger combined special permit and site plan review by planning board.

Now that the Martha's Vineyard Commission has approved the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School athletic field project, which includes one synthetic game field, it's up to Oak Bluffs town entities to conduct their due diligence. — Lucas Thors

Now that the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) has approved the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) athletic field project, the plan is moving onto further examination at the town level.

Even though the MVC gave the go-ahead for the development of regional impact (DRI), they must still issue a written decision, which is scheduled for July 15, in which they will outline any final conditions.

Once the written decision is finalized and released, it will head to the Oak Bluffs planning board, which will serve as a kind of portal to disseminate information to other town bodies that are interested in being involved in the process, according to planning board chair Ewell Hopkins.

DRI coordinator Alex Elvin said MVC staff are now working on drafting a formal written decision, which will return to the full commission for a final vote. Any conditions they approve would go back to the Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) for review, as well.

Certain conditions of the project will require future review by the commission and the LUPC, such as the plastic reduction plan, along with stormwater and other environmental monitoring, and a comprehensive landscape management plan. 

Elvin said he expects those documents will be submitted sometime this summer.

In the longer term, if any changes are made to the project, or whenever the synthetic field reaches the end of its useful life, the high school must return to the commission.

After such an exhaustive discussion during the MVC’s DRI review related to the contents of Phase One of the project — including one synthetic turf field, which has taken up the bulk of the deliberations — Hopkins said other major elements of the plan have been largely overlooked.

He said the athletic field project speaks to the larger issue of Islandwide regulatory authorities and municipal bodies not collaborating and communicating during their reviews. “The process at the Island level and the process at the municipality level do not inform one another to the degree that they should, therefore the applicant has a separate and distinct process of review that they are subject to,” Hopkins said.

And for folks who think the MVC decision is the be-all-end-all for the high school’s ambition for a brand-new athletic campus, Hopkins said, there is still a lot of work to be done at the town level.

“People say, ‘Oh, we went to the commission and we got an approval, so it’s over,’ but that’s not correct,” he said. “The only thing the commission does is create a foundation that the town cannot lessen, but it can strengthen or make more restrictive. That is what’s going to start now.”

According to Hopkins, the portion of the campus where the project is slated to be sits squarely atop the Island’s sole-source aquifer, and is within a Zone II wellhead protection district.

This means that all the Island’s water is sourced from this one aquifer.

Because the planned fields will be located in such an environmentally sensitive area, Hopkins said, the project is subject to a higher degree of scrutiny by local authorities. 

One Oak Bluffs zoning bylaw dealing with Water Resource Protection Overlay Districts (WRPOD) protects the Island’s delicate water resources from pollution, nutrient overloading, and toxic chemicals.

In order to develop within an WRPOD, any project must be submitted as an application to the planning board, and must be granted a special permit. Other town boards such as the board of health have the opportunity to weigh in, and can partner with the planning board through the special permitting process. 

For Hopkins and the rest of the planning board, their job is to look at the short- and long-term scope of impact the project will have on the surrounding area, including how the various phases will come together and interface with other town infrastructure.

In this case, Hopkins said, he wishes more of this kind of conversation had happened in the MVC deliberations. “We have had a lot of conversation surrounding playing surfaces, but conversations on the entirety of the project, the multiphase nature of the project, and the implications it has on town services and infrastructure are all yet to come,” Hopkins said. “I am very concerned about the public’s expectations of the level of due diligence that is still required before this can be responsibly permitted.”

As an educational institution, the high school is afforded the option to be exempt from a degree of scrutiny at the municipal level related to zoning.

This exemption, called the Dover Amendment, was invoked by the high school during the initial planning board review, before the project was referred to the commission as a DRI. “Things like setbacks and other issues where we might have authority or oversight, we lose that in a site plan review under Dover,” Hopkins said. But Dover is not applicable when it comes to health and safety concerns, and Hopkins said he believes that any potential threats to a water protection district requiring a special permit would eclipse the Massachusetts zoning exemption.

If the nonapplicability of the Dover Amendment is challenged by the high school, Hopkins said, it would possibly have to be adjudicated in court.

“At that point, we are interpreting law. The question would be, Is the water resource bylaw applicable in this case? Would it override Dover? I say yes,” Hopkins said. “I have spoken to our attorney — he has not rejected or endorsed that position.”

Under Hopkins’ belief that the WRPOD bylaw would necessitate a special permit as part of the high school’s site plan review, the existing application that will be sent to the planning board would have to be modified.

One concern Hopkins said would eclipse the Dover Amendment is the confirmed presence of per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS) in synthetic turf materials.

In past MVC public hearing sessions, environmental engineers and consultants who tested the synthetic materials in the proposed plan said the levels of PFAS identified were not a cause for concern, although the jury is still out on the full array of PFAS chemicals that may be harmful to humans. “We did not initially invoke a special permit under [the WRPOD bylaw] because we were assured this was a PFAS-free proposal, as the applicant had said,” Hopkins said. 

Until he sees the written decision from the MVC, Hopkins said, he won’t know for certain what additional investigation may be needed, and at what scale. 

Oak Bluffs board of health agent Meegan Lancaster said the board of health is planning on being involved in the special permit review, and described its part in the process as a kind of “in-house consulting role.”

She said the presence of PFAS in the synthetic materials is one cause for concern for the board of health.

“Them being forever chemicals — it’s concerning when you have chemical compounds measured in the parts per trillion, not million or billion,” Lancaster said. “That’s definitely a concern for public health, and obviously for our water supply.”

The Field Fund, a natural-grass advocacy organization that stewards elementary school fields on the Island, continues to stand in vocal opposition to the project. It released a statement following the MVC approval of the project, saying that commissioners “shirked their responsibility to protect the Island’s waters, environment, rural character, and children, undermining their credibility as a governing body that works to mitigate climate change.”

Messages requesting comment from Superintendent Matt D’Andrea, Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith, school committee member Kris O’Brien, and MVC executive director Adam Turner were not returned.


  1. Shame on the Oak Bluffs planning board for not having these discussions amongst themselves well this has been going on all this time. I can speak for Edgartown which sends projects to the Commission the various boards in that town have discussed and have opinions on those projects while they are being reviewed at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. To have waited until Commission made a decision was not in the best interest of our students or the island. It seems government loves stringing things out and taking as long as possible.

  2. I expect this has been Mr. Hopkins plan all along. He is hiding behind the “lack of coordination”. Read his words carefully. He is talking out of both sides of his mouth, just like he did with the application when he feigned surprise in the newspapers about the Dover amendment. It was on page 2 of the cover letter. Does he want us to believe he did not read it or shall we assume he is playing games? Ask him if he is able to reconcile the amount of Nitrogen that would need to be put on the fields per the MVC consultant with the limitations in OB and if he paid attention to the Horsley statements regarding the safety of the materials. It is amazing how he does not actually reconcile these issues. He knows that the HS can’t use enough Nitrogen to get grass to grow for the level of usage in order to protect the water supply. Remember the other option is to add 2 more grass fields and dump more nitrogen into the same Aquifer. He needs to stop this dirty and shameful legislation in the newspaper and only do all this in the open public meeting setting. Good elected officials do not play this game. They stay quiet and do it the right way in formal meeting sessions. Select Board and state ethics board please take notice.

    • Actually, a good grass field, installed and managed in the proven ways proposed by the FieldFund folks will release very little Nitrogen, because the plants will only be fed the amount that they can absorb and transform into strong grass – and yes, they will need more than the arbitrary amount that MVC has chosen. BUT, there is absolutely no need to worry about that nitrogen getting down to our groundwater and into into our ponds, because almost all of it will go into the grass and be absorbed and stored in the thick layer of rich compost soil. Grass is immensely beneficial to our health, our water, our climate, our future. On the other hand, plastic turf is an insult to our planet, an abomination made of monstrously Frankensteined chemicals that will remain toxic forever, entering our children’s bodies via mouth, nose, eyes and skin as they play their rough games which inevitably breaks off millions of nano-particles which enter our children’s blood and DNA – causing unpredictable and devastating harm to their hormones and reproductive systems. The harm may take years to develop, and can effect any part of their bodies. Our children will be the guinea pigs for the chemical experiments of the plastic proponents. Is it really worth the risk of playing such Russian roulette. What is it that makes them think that plastic is so superior to good grass fields that it’s worth taking such life-threatening risks??

  3. Mr. Murphy,
    The Oak Bluffs planning board attempted, in good faith, to discuss and review the project before it went to the MVC, but they were stymied by the School Administration, which invoked the Dover Amendment to avoid local scrutiny.

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