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.