The question of whether the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) is required to apply for a special permit under a particular Oak Bluffs zoning bylaw has sparked controversy between Oak Bluffs planning board chair Ewell Hopkins and school officials.
After an exhaustive review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) and its subsequent conditional approval of the first phase of the MVRHS athletic campus project, the piece of the project involving a synthetic turf field has again hit a stumbling block.
In July 2020, a letter from town counsel Michael Goldsmith to Hopkins illustrated a legal opinion on the impact the Dover Amendment would have on the board’s authority to review the field project under the site plan review section of the Oak Bluffs zoning bylaws.
That letter stated that in the site plan review bylaw the planning board originally intended to review the project under, Dover limits the board’s scope of review to issues related to parking and certain dimensional restrictions.
Prior to review by the MVC, the school invoked the Dover Amendment during the initial planning board review process. The Dover Amendment is a state law enacted in the 1950s to protect agricultural, religious, and educational institutions from discrimination, and it exempts certain projects from some local zoning.
After a self-referral made by the school to the MVC that was affirmed by the planning board, the project went to the commission, and municipal entities were restricted from actively reviewing the project or taking any related action.
Now that the project is back before the planning board more than a year later, Hopkins is asserting that findings from the MVC have come to light that necessitate an expanded scope of review.
Under the Oak Bluffs zoning bylaw that deals with protection of the Island’s sole-source aquifer as a water resource protection overlay district (WRPOD), Hopkins is asking that the school come back to the planning board with a special permit application.
The Dover Amendment does not exempt the school from zoning bylaws such as the WRPOD, which are related to public health and safety, and Hopkins says that for this reason, the school’s application is incomplete. In this case, Hopkins is considering the findings of the MVC and the impact a synthetic field could potentially have on the aquifer, and wants the planning board to conduct due diligence related to the WRPOD.
A report by Horsley Witten, the MVC’s environmental consultant, indicated the presence of heavy metals and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as being too small to be taken into account, although it noted that many PFAS are still emerging contaminants, and there is still a significant number of the compounds that aren’t regulated or tested for.
During a Sept. 9 meeting of the planning board, school committee chair Amy Houghton cited the letter from Goldsmith, stating the limitations of the board’s scope of review.
Hopkins responded saying that he is awaiting updated guidance from Goldsmith related to this matter, and whether the WRPOD bylaw special permit review process would be triggered.
Also during that meeting, Oak Bluffs select board member Ryan Ruley, speaking in an official capacity, said he is concerned that the review process by the board has “grown out of control.”
He said Hopkins is “too personally involved,” and asked him to recuse himself from the project review. “I think it would behoove the town and the integrity of the process if that were to happen. I think it’s gotten too convoluted, and it’s tainted no matter what outcome happens. I say that with respect,” Ruley said.
Hopkins said he has no intention of stepping down from the project.
After a tense back-and-forth between Hopkins and members of the public who support the field project, Hopkins said, “To look at a point in time of July 2020 on Sept. 9, 2021, disavows everything that has taken place since that date,” referring to MVC findings that he said would impact the WRPOD.
It is still unclear whether any MVC findings would trigger special permit review.
During an MVRHS committee meeting on Sept. 13, Houghton said that if the school is required to redo its application and apply for a special permit, “that means redoing many of the things that were done by the [MVC].” She said the school does not need a special permit for the project.
The school has already spent a significant amount of funds hiring external consultants during the MVC process, and Houghton fears more environmental testing during the planning board process would require more taxpayer dollars.
If it is determined that a special permit is required for the project, the school has the option to appeal to the zoning board of appeals.
As The Times goes to press Wednesday, the planning board was scheduled to discuss the most recent guidance from Goldsmith related to the applicability of the WRPOD bylaw to the project, and whether it is within the board’s scope of review to require a special permit.