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.