Planning board denies MVRHS field

Special permit vote fails 2-2, with Crossland recused from review.

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Oak Bluffs planning board chair Ewell Hopkins was one of two board members to vote to deny the MVRHS track and field special permit.

Updated 5/5

The Oak Bluffs planning board voted 2-2 on May 4 to deny the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School a special permit triggered by a bylaw related to water protection.

Initially, the planning board reviewed the project, which includes a 400-meter track, one grass field, and a synthetic turf game field, under a site plan review. That application was approved by the board in October 2021, with board chair Ewell Hopkins reluctantly making the final decision to vote in favor. 

The synthetic turf field is one of the most hotly debated issues on the Island in years, and the debate has, at times, turned ugly and vulgar at public meetings and on social media. At the heart of the dispute has been debate over per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS, and whether the Island should introduce a plastic turf field that uses PFAS in the manufacturing process.
Proponents have said the field will not cause environmental problems, and will allow student athletes to better compete against their off-Island peers, and suffer fewer injuries. Opponents say too little is known about PFAS, an emerging contaminant that environmental regulators are studying because of the illnesses it can cause when it infiltrates drinking water, and that better-maintained grass fields will actually reduce injuries.
After a brief discussion during Wednesday’s meeting, board members Bill Cleary and Erik Albert voted in favor, and Hopkins and board member JoJo Lambert voted in opposition. Member Mark Crossland recused himself from the project at the outset of review for an unspecified reason. 

A special permit requires a supermajority vote to pass, or a minimum of four votes.

The board is required to write up a formal decision within 14 days and submit that to school project representatives for review. 

The project had been approved in a split vote by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, with conditions.

Cleary asked how often the monitoring wells mandated by the MVC in their approval of the project would be tested and reported on. He also wondered about discussion of an action plan if the wells were found to be contaminated. 

Project designer Chris Huntress said the MVC mandated the wells be tested and reported on annually via a third-party independent contractor. He added that the filtration system in the proposed project has several layers of protective filter fabric that would capture any microplastics, and that the materials were already tested extensively by independent consultants. 

“We went through $40,000 or $50,000 of testing with both Tetra Tech and Horsley Witten. We tested the material first to make sure it wouldn’t be a problem,” Huntress said. 

MVRHS school committee chair Amy Houghton said in a follow-up phone call with The Times that her primary goal is to provide a track and athletic field that supports student athletes and the community. “We will just have to figure out how to navigate that, and work in partnership with the town of Oak Bluffs so that we can have something that works for everybody,” Houghton said.

As far as immediate next steps, the school committee will meet on May 17 at 6 pm to discuss what avenue to take going forward. School officials can opt to either appeal the decision, wait for the mandatory period of two years to resubmit an identical proposal, or create an alternative proposal that has been significantly modified to the satisfaction of the planning board.

“All of those conversations would have to come to the school committee, because the committee voted for a specific project, which is what was reviewed,” Houghton said. School officials will also discuss the regional agreement at the May 17 meeting.

Houghton hopes that student athletes will soon benefit from an overhauled athletic campus that meets their needs. “I feel really strongly that we need to be focused on the school and the kids; that is where our effort is going to be spent,” she said.

When asked about Hopkins’ public support of the Field Fund and whether she thinks the connection constitutes a conflict, she said it’s not her place to say.

“Ewell has been chair of the planning board for a long time, and he knows what the rules are. If he felt that there was no conflict, I would agree there was no conflict — that is a decision for him to make,” Houghton said. She added that in a small community like Martha’s Vineyard, it’s difficult for elected officials to not have connections with various organizations. “I think you have to give someone the benefit of the doubt that they are able to do their job and do it despite what their feelings are. You have to wear the hat of the constituents you are representing.”

Because Huntress Associates only contracted with the school through special permit review, it will be at the discretion of the school committee to re-engage with the design firm.

Houghton called Huntress a “consummate professional,” and noted that he has put in countless hours researching the existing athletic campus, with thousands of taxpayer dollars already invested in his work.

“I am hoping we could allow Mr. Huntress to come forward with something that is acceptable for everyone and not waste all that money. It would be the entire Island’s loss if he wasn’t involved going forward,” Houghton said. Huntress has also conducted preliminary studies of how an updated athletic campus could tie in with an overhauled Sanderson Road in a master planning process — a major boon for school planners, according to Houghton.

Hopkins said there are a variety of steps the school could take, noting that officials initially invoked the Dover Amendment in the planning board review by claiming that the town didn’t have the regulatory authority to dictate certain elements of land use on the MVRHS campus.

“They have challenged the land use authority of the town throughout the entire process. I’m not sure what they might do,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins stressed that the planning board’s denial was based exclusively on ensuring the safety of the water protection district, and the application of products in that zone of Oak Bluffs. “There is legal precedent to significantly protect the application of land use in that district, more so than in other areas of town,” he added.

In response to questions about his open advocacy for the Field Fund’s work, Hopkins said the organization has graciously built athletic fields at the Oak Bluffs School, which have helped tie into town planners’ visions for the abutting Island Elderly Housing, and the “conservation jewel” of Farm Pond.

“They have created an environment where we have a corridor from Wing Road to the ocean through natural land and conservation land that I am very proud of,” Hopkins said. “When I wear a shirt that says the Field Fund or I speak in support of the Field Fund, just the work that they have done in the town of Oak Bluffs is commendable. Do I have to agree with every position of an organization to support them?”

He said he sits on numerous nonprofit boards, and is an active member in several spheres of the community, including environmental preservation and conservation.

“I am not a disconnected, black-robe-wearing judicial person,” he said. “Do I care about the environment? Yes. Am I an environmentalist? Yes. Am I a conservationist? Yes. Do I go to Vineyard Conservation Society’s Earth Day celebration and invest my Saturday cleaning up nip bottles from people who indiscriminately throw them on the side of the road? Yes. Does that mean I can’t review the high school application? No. I am not embarrassed or ashamed or apologetic of my admiration for the work of the Field Fund in the town of Oak Bluffs.”

Now, Hopkins said, it’s incumbent on officials, elected or otherwise, to figure out how the Island community can come together to plan for a project that will meet the needs of students and the Island as a whole.

“There is no one in this conversation that doesn’t care about the community. From my perspective, our common love for this place needs to be strong enough to pull us together and figure out how we move forward cooperatively,” Hopkins said.

Updated with comments from school officials and Hopkins.  –Ed.

44 COMMENTS

  1. Can we please now let the Field Fund get to work on giving our kids safe, healthy, state of the art grass playing fields? We could have done this years ago. Now let’s get on with it.

    • No, that would be three more new fields (the main one and two more than would be needed if there was one artificial turf field) That’s a three additional fields worth of fertilizer, water and maintenance so high usage can be accounted for.

  2. A six year review process.

    And denied without any actual evidence of PFAS problems from ANY
    existing installation anywhere on the planet.

    Very interesting.

  3. Frankly, there are three communities with documented PFAS contamination of water from synthetic turf that were presented at the NEWMOA conference in Boston on 6 Apr 2022. Researchers have tested MANY fields, MANY…100% positive for TOF and or TOPs. That research will be published this summer and you have heard from INDEPENDENT, UNPAID, EXPERTS in this field.

  4. I’d like to publicly and robustly thank Planning Board members Bill Cleary and Erik Albert for their efforts on behalf of our community – you evaluated the SCIENCE and came to the reasonable and correct conclusion that there is zero evidence that the project would damage the aquifer in any way.
    So thanks Bill & Erik for doing the right thing for our High School students.

  5. be you for or against the project, explain to me why we the tax payers from all over the island paid hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars at an all Island commission only to have the project gunned down by one man on one board from one town.
    is this Oak Bluffs idea of an equitable island.

  6. Reasonable minds can have a difference of opinion, but the idea that two people from one town can deny the most island-wide vetted, investigated, researched, and APPROVED project is lunacy. There’s something extremely suspicious about this process.

  7. I thought this was also voted at the polls a few years back and won. Then it went to the planning board and was moved to the MVC, received conditional approval. Only to be hijacked again because the minority did not like the answer. So even the popular vote does not really matter either anymore.

    • Jared– I could just be losing my memory, but I don’t ever recall seeing this issue on any ballot. I have voted in all elections since I got here in 1986.

      You gotta be kidding when you lament about the popular vote, right ?

    • This synthetic field project has never been brought to an up or down vote at either town meeting or at the polls in any town on the island — not one. The people on the island who drink the water and pay the taxes have never been consulted and never will be. School officials, school committees, the MVC, planning boards, etc. have weighed in at various times to keep this project alive — for years. We are lucky to live in a place with direct democracy where we get to vote “directly,” not through representatives, on all important and controversial matters. But not on this. Why?

  8. I admit I haven’t followed every chapter in this saga, but I haven’t, to my knowledge, seen any discussion of the increased likelihood of injury (knees, ankles) from playing on artificial turf. This is an issue that’s been raised even at the professional level. I don’t think it’s a minor issue, especially for young athletes.

    • Yes and no. A perfectly-maintained grass field is better and safer than a turf field. But most turf fields are better and safer for players than most grass fields.

      The apparent contradiction has a simple explanation: it is difficult to maintain a grass field to a decent standard, much less to do it perfectly. This is even more true in high-use areas, where the need to play takes preference over the desire to protect the field, eg when people hold games in the rain.

    • Bruce McNally: “but I haven’t, to my knowledge, seen any discussion of the increased likelihood of injury (knees, ankles) from playing on artificial turf. ”

      I raised this issue in a letter to the Times published on Feb. 1, 2021.
      https://www.mvtimes.com/2021/02/01/turf-facts-need-research/

      In it I wrote:

      “. . . Injury fact: A recent study of high school sports undertaken by the University Hospitals Sports Medicine Institute, physician-researchers from University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and UH Sports Medicine Institute found that “athletes were 58 percent more likely to sustain an injury during athletic activity on artificial turf. Injury rates were significantly higher for football, girls and boys soccer, and rugby athletes. Lower extremity, upper extremity, and torso injuries were also found to occur with a higher incidence on artificial turf.” Read in full: “Artificial Turf Versus Natural Grass,” http://www.uhhospitals.org/for-clinicians/articles-and-news/articles/2019/08/artificial-turf-versus-natural-grass.

      Injury fact: The NFLPA has gathered data on player injuries. The NFLPA president, J. C. Tretter, wrote in August 2020, “The unforgiving nature of artificial turf compounds the grind on the body we already bear from playing a contact sport. . . . The data supports the anecdotes you’ll hear from me and other players: artificial turf is significantly harder on the body than grass. . . . Specifically, players have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf. Of those non-contact injuries, players have a 32% higher rate of non-contact knee injuries on turf and a staggering 69% higher rate of non-contact foot/ankle injuries on turf compared to grass. . . . NFL clubs should proactively change all field surfaces to natural grass. This data is clear, so everyone involved with our sport should be similarly motivated to make this switch.” Read in full: https://nflpa.com/posts/only-natural-grass-can-level-the-nfls-playing-field.

      Heat fact: Tom Serensits, the manager of Penn State’s Sports Surface Research Center, summarizes the findings of a study of heat reduction of artificial turf: “There is no ‘magic bullet’ to . . . lower the surface temperature of synthetic turf. Reductions of five or even ten degrees offer little comfort when temperatures can still exceed 150 degrees F.” Read in full: “Is There Any Way to Cool Synthetic Turf?,” https://sturf.lib.msu.edu/article/2011jun20.pdf. . . . “

      • The safety of turf fields is a function of use and maintenance.
        Most major university stadiums see very little use and maintenance costs are a very small percentage of the gross.
        What’are the safety issues of the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
        There is nothing natural about turf.
        Ask anyone who maintains it
        Better living thru chemistry.

      • Agreed. Women’s pro soccer in the US was given an artificial turf field a few years ago and the dramatic uptick in visible and serious injuries was egregious enough to make national news. Lesions on legs, massive bruising.

  9. People need to learn how to take a Loss. Sometimes your side doesn’t win. Take your lumps, shake it off and think about the future. The pro turf crowd’s tone has been childish and yet condescending during this whole debate. Usually the tears of the defeated taste sweet. In this case they are just stale.

    • Mr Holmes,

      Have you seen the photo of the planning board chairman wearing a field fund T-shirt?
      He either paid for it or was gifted it. It does not convince the public of impartiality to his vote. This kind of sums it all up sour tasting tears.

      • Politicans should be prohibited from wearing political T shirts?
        Advocating policy?
        People get elected on the basis of their partiality.

      • No such thing as impartiality. We all have opinions and interests. Chairman just putting bias on a shirt for all to see. Everyone else voting also have opinions and biases.

      • James. I will officially be against this project now as a result of the deplorable behavior of those who support it. Hope that gives you the black and white clarity you so richly desire.

        • Thank you. It’s a black & white issue. You’ve been against it all along. With zero evidence to support your stance. The left is ruining this country. Deplorable behavior gave me a chuckle.

          • James, how do you feel about TFG and all his supporters claiming the election was rigged and stolen instead of taking them loss and moving on?

  10. I am happy we don’t approve of big impact projects when we are so divided. Now we have to put our minds together to solve this issue w a new solution. A solution that looks at how to serve the need of the whole. We need to start from what we have in common with a long term plan that sustains us in to the future.

    • EXACTLY .
      Since this project is a 5-1 vote at the all island school commitee I am looking to our elected representatives and school leadership to curate this next step to playable field consruction. What we have in common is a great start .

    • TIAA: There Is An Alternative.

      The Field Fund has already installed a number of functional, healthy all-grass fields on the Island.
      It seems to me that the greatest area of concern regarding grass fields is fertilizer leaching.
      Yet my understanding is that contemporary all-grass fields, planted with new purpose-developed tough grass varieties, use organic fertilizers. The focus is on building up the soil. It is also possible to create fields and fertilizer systems where all of the nitrogen is taken up by the plants; none is left over to leach into groundwater.

      A real-grass field is a good investment.
      A turf field is a lousy investment.
      In this Conn. town the turf field lasted all of 8 years.
      Check this out:
      https://www.journalinquirer.com/towns/tolland/new-field-considered-at-tolland-hs/article_7e338c2e-51f9-11ec-abee-938d35ab0b21.html

      “TOLLAND — The Town Council and Board of Education Monday discussed the feasibility of replacing the artificial turf athletic field at Tolland High School, and also the possibility of reverting to a grass field instead.

      The artificial turf field at the school, which was installed in 2013, is nearing the end of its life span, town and school officials at the joint meeting said.

      The field is wearing out quickly because many sports, such as soccer and football, use it, Tolland Schools Facility Director Peter Sztaba said, adding that the fiber thickness of the field is decreasing, and parts are coming undone, which creates a tripping hazard.

      Interim Town Manager Lisa Hancock said the field would likely need to be replaced in a year or two, and that the cost is estimated at $850,000. The project is slated for the town’s capital budget next year, she added. . . . ”

      NB: “the fiber thickness of the field is decreasing” means that the fiber particles have gone into the environment.

      • I can offer the following: for over 8 years this conversation has been going on. And the only real objection to the grass field proposal is that it cannot sustain the usage required by the athletic programs of MVRHS. That’s why the overall proposal included one turf field and multiple grass fields so that the turf field would allow athletics to continue to play while the grass fields rested and were properly tended.

  11. I’ve lived on this beautiful island full time since mid 80s. I’m proud of the people who will always take a stand they passionately believe in. It’s why I’m still here.

  12. I am so grateful that the plastic turf was finally voted down! And now, let’s not waste any more time – the high school needs safe excellent playing fields, and that’s exactly what grass can provide. Grass will be about 50 degrees cooler than plastic! And it will not cause endocrine-disrupting PFAS dust to get into the lungs of our youngsters, or cause serious abrasions enabling PFAS to get straight into their bloodstream. And grass will not leach nitrogen into our groundwater because it will all be absorbed by the grass. And the grass will absorb tons of CO2. And it will smell so good! Now, PLEASE sign a contract immediately with the folks who have already proven that they can make great grass playing fields right here on the Vineyard!

  13. Thank you so much to the Oak Bluffs Planning Board for taking so much time on this crucial issue, and thank you Kate Scott for publishing these facts about injuries on plastic turf being much higher than real grass fields. I have included some of that in my letters to the Commission and the Oak Bluffs Planning Board. And Thank you Stina.. We love your quote “We need to start from what we have in common with a long term plan that sustains us in to the future.” As a Community moving forward, let’s focus on healing our differences with Love, patience and the common good in mind for our island. Together we can make the grass grow. ❤️ ❤️

  14. I have watched this debate from the sidelines for years . I raised two boys who played sports on the grass fields here on the island. My youngest became a High School All American and continued on to play division 1 at two great schools. He tore his ACL on an artificial field in college and worked long and hard to return to his sport. He and his brother are decidedly AGAINST the artificial turf here on the island. The artificial fields require so much cleaning and care that maybe our small school cannot support. That and especially the potential health risks. Let the kids play on grass. Hard work and good coaching (not a plastic field) are what make a great athlete.

  15. To say that you disapprove of this or any other project (but especially this one because it’s so critical for the young people on this island) because you believe some of the people who support it have done or said things you find, for lack of a more appropriate word, “deplorable” – pretty much exposes your opinion as arbitrary and insignificant.

    This project was high jacked by an elected official who is supposed to represent us all. Sadly, he chose not to recuse himself, even when asked to do so by a town Selectman. To call that an acceptable out come is ridiculous.

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