The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee has tentatively scheduled an executive session, meeting with legal counsel to discuss appealing the decision of the Oak Bluffs planning board that stymied the school track and field project, due to concerns over synthetic turf.
At Tuesday’s special committee meeting, three options were presented to members as viable next steps in order to get a track and field project through the planning board and other associated town bodies.
“We are at a little bit of a crossroads,” chair Amy Houghton said. “The special permit request as presented was denied by the town of Oak Bluffs.” The permit was denied due to water quality concerns about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other environmental contaminants that were found in small amounts in components of the proposed artificial turf materials.
The first option the school has is to appeal the planning board’s decision, which would go through a court process. The second would be for the committee to wait two years (the mandated wait time) to reapply with the same project proposal. The third option would be to reapply with a significant material change that satisfies the requirements of both the Oak Bluffs zoning board and then the planning board, which would require a majority vote by the planning board. Only then could the amended proposal be taken up officially by the planning board under its normal review process.
Committee member Kris O’Brien was adamant during the meeting that school legal counsel should be available to answer questions with respect to litigation, thus an executive session would be warranted.
Member Skipper Manter said he believes the committee should first reach a consensus on whether an appeal is the preferred next step, “then we can meet with the attorney and look into doing an executive session.”
“We should do what we can to move this project forward, and if we can’t get the turf, we should go with grass. It will take two years for the appeal, and that will take another two years for the approval process, and we will keep moving further and further behind,” Manter said.
Before making a motion to look into what it would take to replace the synthetic turf component with all grass, member Robert Lionette said the committee could take a specific direction that wouldn’t require any executive sessions or any further legal expenditures.
Member Mike Watts said Lionette’s motion ignores the extensive report created by Chris Huntress and Huntress Associates that stipulates the need for one synthetic turf game field to necessarily accommodate the high usage hours a high school game field would see.
“In order for all grass to work, we would need two additional fields. So we would be ignoring our consultants? I don’t understand that,” Watts said.
But Lionette said he had always questioned the data the Huntress report was based on, stating that he doesn’t think the numbers upon which the model is based are “very accurate.”
“I think they included things beyond the scope of the high school,” Lionette said.
O’Brien said the committee should not be ignoring the expert opinion of Huntress.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that we need synthetic turf from an expert,” O’Brien said, adding that the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) list of conditions for approval of the project requires that any amendment be brought back to the commission, which means entering into another review process with the MVC.
Lionette’s motion to swap the synthetic turf out for grass fields and reapply to the town of Oak Bluffs failed, 5-3, with member Roxanne Ackerman abstaining because she said she doesn’t have enough information on the Huntress proposal.
O’Brien then motioned to postpone further discussion to an executive session, where legal counsel could discuss options for appeal.
The motion passed, and an executive session meeting was tentatively scheduled for Monday, May 23, at 6:30 pm, with a backup time being the following day at the same time.
What’s next for MSBA funding?
The high school is closer than it’s ever been to achieving a significant monetary contribution from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (along with professional expertise) for the construction of a new or renovated building.
As the funding formula working group, made up of town and school officials, is moving to finalize and recommend an amicable funding formula for all six member towns of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional School District, the rest of the regional agreement is being reviewed with a fine-tooth comb.
Nancy Campany, a lawyer with Murphy, Lamere & Murphy, went through the existing regional agreement and made extensive red-line changes to verbiage related to statutory and regulatory requirements. Some of the changes recommended by Campany dealt with perfunctory and sometimes boilerplate language and requirements, but Campany said that nonetheless, there are some stringent requirements that an agreement must meet. “This is in order to move the document forward and into better alignment with what the state is looking for,” Campany said.
In order to make an amendment to the regional agreement, all member towns must approve, along with Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley. She noted that generally, before an agreement goes to the towns to be voted on at town meetings, a draft agreement is sent to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for its preliminary approval. Following that step, the agreement would need to be unanimously approved by all towns.
Included in that agreement must be the capital formula that dictates how costs for the new school project will be apportioned to each town. Campany said an agreement sent to the commissioner could be singularly used for this one specific building project, and another agreement (and formula) could be used for other capital costs.
If the high school can get the commissioner to sign off on a regional agreement (including a formula), the MSBA will accommodate Island towns by allowing them to wait until annual town meetings to vote on the amended agreement.
“I don’t think we have to have a special town meeting for the purposes of voting on an amended document, but we need some sort of approval from DESE before we go to the next step,” Campany said.
Sam Hart, coordinator of special projects for MVRHS, said following DESE’s preliminary approval, the school could go to the towns in the spring of 2023 during the regular annual town meeting cycle. “It doesn’t have to happen before then, but they certainly want to see an agreement worked out,” Hart said.
After discussion surrounding content changes in the regional agreement recommended by Campany, Houghton said MVRHS is trying to get everything approved and sent to the education commissioner by the end of July, in order to give enough time for him to approve the agreement by Sept. 1. The funding formula working group was scheduled to meet Wednesday, May 18, to potentially finalize a recommendation to the school committee.