Pull the plug

14

It remains an embarrassment for the Island that the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Committee is suing the Oak Bluffs planning board over the board’s decision to reject a special permit that would have allowed a synthetic turf field in the town’s water protection overlay district.

To put it simply: The taxpayers of Martha’s Vineyard are paying the attorney fees for MVRHS and the taxpayers of Oak Bluffs are paying for the defense of the Oak Bluffs planning board. Once again, the only winners are the attorneys.

At issue are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are known as forever chemicals. 

At one point The Times was Team Artificial Surface — understanding that we live in the Northeast, and it is difficult to have natural playing fields here because of the climate. We agreed with the explanation that natural fields don’t have enough time to rest, and thus synthetic turf would provide the Island’s athletes the best possible surface to compete and to reduce the risk of injury.

But as the proposal for the fields made its way through the permitting process, something became increasingly clear — we didn’t know what we don’t know. Science is evolving on PFAS and the potential health risks associated with the chemical compounds.

Let’s look at what’s happening elsewhere. 

Boston has become the most recent city to ban artificial surfaces in the city’s parks. In a story on the ban published by the Guardian, Sarah Evans, an environmental health professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told the Guardian: “We already know there are toxic chemicals in the products, so why do we continue to utilize them, and have children roll around on them, when we have a safe alternative, which is natural grass?”

For a while, Oak Bluffs appeared poised to be one of the first communities to ban synthetic turf fields. But the proposed ban has been put on the back burner by the board of health as they await more scientific data. But you have to wonder if intimidation also played a role. One health official left office after being harassed on social media, and others have also felt the heat.

Not a shining moment for proponents of the MVRHS field project. 

Beyond the potential health risks from the chemicals, which are still emerging, the fields are increasingly being called into question for other health risks. The National Football League players are putting pressure on the league to ban artificial turf because of injuries, and U.S. women’s national soccer team reached a settlement to play only on natural surfaces as part of an antidiscrimination suit.

So one of the main reasons that is given for playing on artificial surfaces has been debunked by some of the world’s greatest athletes, who say the fake fields are responsible for injuries.

All of this makes the lawsuit by MVRHS against the planning board ridiculous. The judge has given the two sides until the end of November to try to reach a settlement ahead of a Dec. 2 hearing. The school committee got a briefing on that progress behind closed doors on Monday night. While the committee is allowed to meet secretly to discuss litigation strategy under the law, it feels irresponsible not to update the public, who are paying the legal bills.

With evidence mounting against synthetic fields both environmentally and in terms of the physical health of athletes, we find it difficult to believe a judge will side with the school committee on this one, no matter what their attorneys are telling them to keep the case alive.

Proponents will point to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and their vote to approve the field, but that was hardly unanimous. That vote was so controversial that for the first time ever, the opposing commissioners briefly considered issuing a rare dissenting opinion on the field project.

Incredibly, it’s been the debate on Martha’s Vineyard that has raised awareness about PFAS in artificial turf, the lack of recycling for the old fields, and shined a spotlight on the “experts” who ignore the detriments to make the case in communities that the fields are safe, to earn a paycheck.

Nantucket pulled the plug on its field project, and other communities have also hit the pause button. But here we are fighting in court, using taxpayers’ money in a losing battle.

This is the same school committee that will soon be coming hat in hand to the six Island towns looking for support for a high school project that will be somewhere between $100 and $200 million. You’d think the committee wouldn’t want to be wasting taxpayer money on a lawsuit ahead of that conversation.

The worst part, however, is that while the fight goes on, the high school’s fields remain inadequate and poorly maintained.

Let’s pull the plug on this lawsuit, which was barely approved by a 5-4 vote, and get moving in earnest to fix the fields we have, and pay to maintain them as they always should have been maintained.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Editor, So let me make sure I have this clear. You oppose anyone, institution or individual, from insuring that the process followed by an elected official or board is either/or legal and ethical. It seems that the town of Oak Bluffs Planning board chair, who had publicly expressed his personal opposition to the field project, could have let his personal agenda get in the way of what he was legally bound to do, follow the evidence in front of him. You mention that the vote to appeal wasn’t unanimous, well the planning board vote was split 2-2 not to require a special permit. The Planning Board Chair knew this and knew that if the vote came back to his board he could solely stop the project. One person, able to stop an 8 year long process where thousands of dollars had been spent to insure a safe plan. If you read his, and I say his because he wrote it, explanation of the denial, barely any of the $50,000.00 worth of testing was even mentioned. He however, went overboard siting the opposition’s opinions which had no scientific basis on this project. Let’s say this was your business and you felt that a town board had overstepped its authority, you wouldn’t appeal? I am personally proud of the school for appealing this. It is clear to me that the planning board may not have followed the letter of the law. As a taxpayer, I would like a judge to make sure they did. That is exactly why I pay taxes, to insure that my elected officials are following the laws of the State and Town.

  2. I’d like to see how much taxpayer money was wasted by Ewell Hopkins on lawyer consultation over the past few years over this matter. How about the editors disclose that amount?

  3. The special permit was denied using water protection laws. The MVC failed to vote according to thier mission and instead made it an emotional vote for student athletes. I can understand that. The people who have direct contact with our students, see the positive results of their devotion to lifting up our Island students, in academics, mentoring, art, performing arts and sports. Our coaches, teachers , school administration, school committee members, community providers, parents, elected officials and taxpayers all play a role. Our elected officials are simply , citizens who care enough about MV to put in the time , energy and intellect to serve their towns. Every person elected has an agenda and opinions, why else would they run? I am grateful for the opinion of Joanne Lambert and Ewell Hopkins, Oak Bluffs is lucky to have them. I am hoping that more people will run for office who are critical of importing 2+ acres of plastic turf , that will last aprox 8 years and then become unrecylable garbage. This editorial picks up facts from the last 8 years. In that time , communtiies have banned new plastic turf installations, they are simply not worth the risk for a multitude of reasons that have been established by environmental scientist and sports medicine doctors and professional athletes . So while we commoners, muck through the unfortunatate malaise of our MVRHS school community pitted against each other , professionals nationwide are asking for natural grass fields . Our Island’s natural resources are not infinite and are at a tipping point. Watering grass fields will be a challenge. We may even have brown fields somedays , that the kind of things we will have to accept to have a sustainable Island. Our expectations must respect nature and live sustaining water it gives us freely. This water can be preserved , its up to all of us. If you want off-island things, maybe just move off-island . If you are reading this and care about preserving MV , please run for local office, your opinions matter and please ask your MVRHS school commitee member to drop this lawsuit.

  4. MV Times, yes the behavior of some individuals on the MVRHS school board indeed remains an embarrassment. It’s a further embarrassment that some people are singling out the chair of the OBPB, Ewell Hopkins, as the person to “blame”.

    The lack of mentions regarding other voting officials against artificial turf over the last seven years is striking. Is there some personal vendetta going on? Or tragically is it racism? After witnessing the blatant disregard for the boundaries put in place, repeatedly reiterated and ignored in the meetings facilitated by Ewell in the Spring I draw one awful conclusion.

    Racism is at play, racism has no place in this process, no place on our island or in our world. With all the science which has and continues to emerge regarding artificial turf/PFAS it’s the only conclusion I can come to. It needs to end. End the lawsuit MVRHS school committee.

  5. The MVRHS should not use plastic turf. Its not healthy for our environment nor for the kids who would be playing on it. Regular grass is what we need.

  6. The choice is clear, our kids play on fields made of harmful chemicals or maintained with harmful chemicals.

    • Fields don’t need to be maintained by harmful chemicals. So yes, the choice is clear – natural grass only.

    • Albert–I wonder why you think grass fields need to be maintained with harmful chemicals?
      You have said this many times.
      I posted this video a while back.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nws-ZpeaQJc
      There is no reason whatsoever that the grass fields at the high school, and other fields on the island for that matter cannot be organically fertilized and maintained with simple common sense practices.
      As a local example, I point to Veterans park in V.H. — Despite all the hand wringing and gnashing of teeth , the field is in pretty good shape. I would opine it is in better shape today than it was in early August.
      After the beach road festival, the landscaping crews aerated it with a machine similar to the one shown in the video above. That practice alone improves the health and quality of the field. Every school or town does not need their own aerator. The cost and usage of such a machine could be shared by the towns and school districts.
      Some think the only solution to weeds or pests is to resort to hazardous chemicals.
      That has been sold to us by unscrupulous chemical companies that could care less about the environment or the health of our children. They are only interested in the bottom line.
      And lazy Americans take it all in with careless abandon.

  7. It is abundantly clear that those who oppose the this project will not be swayed, and the same can be said about those who support this project. So now it comes down to the law, and that is the question being posed by the school committee, did the planning board act within their scope?

    I have heard derogatory things being said by both sides toward the other, so neither side is innocent. I think calling people racist because they disagree with the decision rendered by the chairman of a town board is not called for. It is on record, in a letter addressed to the Chair, that he directly ignored the town attorney’s recommendation regarding this particular project. The chair is responsible for the actions of their board, all leaders/directors/chairman know this. The planning board chair wrote the decision, that is why he is being singled out. In the decision, the question is, did the board ignore the Dover Amendment and ignore all the testing reports by the very independent agencies the board and MVC agreed to hire to test the materials? Was the $50,000.00 worth of testing, paid for by tax payers btw, ignored? These are the reasons the board’s decision is being appealed.

    Those who oppose are passionate, as those who commented here are. These are your opinions and you have a right to them. However, town boards are required to follow the laws and procedures of the town, that is what is at question here, did they? We hope to find out soon.

    • Patrick– in the end, there was a vote by the people who were legally elected and tasked with casting a vote.
      It really doesn’t matter why they cast their votes in the way they did.
      They looked at all the studies and evidence about the subject, and cast their vote.
      How they cast their legal vote is their legal prerogative.
      Please tell us what part of this process may have been illegal ?
      As far as I can tell– they were legally required to cast a vote– they did that …
      Do we need 65 court cases to confirm that the duly elected officials legally voted on an issue ?
      You seem to think that the OB planning board was legally obligated to vote in a way that you think they should have, based on “evidence” and studies that you pick and think support your point of view.
      Sorry— they were elected to vote on issues like this and they did. Legal Beagle– easy peasy— There is no issue…if they were not authorized to vote on this and be the final arbitrator, the right for them to do so should have been challenged long ago.

      • Don, my question to you is, like Graham said, if decisions made by boards can’t be appealed then why is there an appeals process? Why does the town have a board of appeals? Judges decisions are appealed and overturned every day, so my understanding is that mistakes can be made by elected persons, that is why there is an appeals process. Heck Roe v Wade was overturned after how many years? My hope is that the recent decision by the US Supreme Court is overturned.

        Board’s are not flawless. The school committee is acting legally because they feel that maybe the board’s decision may have been flawed in either process, procedure, or maybe they acted outside of their scope. I believe, all appealable reasons. To be clear, what my opinion is regarding where I stand on the project is irrelevant now, public testimony is closed.

        • Patrick– your comment above questions whether the board followed the law. I pointed out that in my opinion they did.

          I am not saying the school committee is acting illegally.
          They are indeed within their legal right to appeal it.
          I just think it’s a waste of time and money.

  8. Thank You Patrick Cleary for you clear thoughtful response to again ugly vitriol. One side cannot claim moral high ground when they both are doing a similar or same thing. It matters not who is saying it. Both sides need to allow the process to go through. This is a big emotionally charged disagreement. We as an island have had them before. Name calling must end. It is forever hurtful.

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