No one wins with recent turf court decision


Last week’s Massachusetts Land Court ruling in favor of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional School District and its proposed synthetic turf field is definitive in its opinion, but it does nothing to ease Islanders who are concerned about potential impacts on drinking water in Oak Bluffs.

Judge Kevin Smith was asked to rule on whether the Oak Bluffs planning board had overstepped its bounds when it rejected the school’s proposed field. The schools argued, and the judge agreed, that a section of Massachusetts law called the Dover Amendment gives educational institutions — as well as religious and agricultural institutions — broad authority to bypass local zoning.

Judge Smith, in his ruling, basically said that a town might have legitimate concerns about the impacts of a project on a public water supply, but he couldn’t rule on those concerns. Under his review were procedural issues.

“I recognize that the protection of groundwater is of critical importance to any municipality, particularly when that municipality is on an island in the Atlantic Ocean,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “But I am constrained by the language of the Dover Amendment and the cases that have construed it. The legislature has limited the application of local zoning bylaws to an educational use to dimensional controls, only. The wisdom of this limitation, under these circumstances, is not for this court to question.”

The judge doesn’t offer much room for a rebuttal, and planning board officials have said they don’t plan to pursue further litigation at this point.

Now, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee is pretty much in the same place it was before the planning board rejected the turf field a year ago, except now they have a strange legal rule in their corner allowing them to bulldoze over local concerns. 

They can continue to try to build a synthetic turf playing field that sits over the Vineyard’s sole-source aquifer, over Oak Bluffs’ water resource protection area. As has been the case in recent months — using a bundle of cash from largely anonymous donors (hold your nose) to fund its lawsuit — we’ll venture to guess that they’ll do what needs to be done to build the field.

But there is an opportunity to work together with the town for a solution. This is much too important a moment, for public health and for a communitarian Vineyard, to win this argument through an antiquated state law that goes back 70 years, before the Environmental Protection Agency, and long before anyone knew what the letters P-F-A-S represented. 

The environmental and public health concerns are real. Federal officials seem to come out with a new study routinely saying that any amount of PFAS in drinking water is not good, and there’s a perception in the Vineyard public that this field will leach chemicals into the town’s drinking water. 

The school community needs to prove that that won’t be the case, and the Dover Amendment — which largely deals with zoning — shouldn’t allow them to bulldoze over local concerns. 

Also, it’s not just the Oak Bluffs planning board with skin in the game. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission will review the project in order to grant an extension to its original approval, which is set to expire 60 days from the lawsuit conclusion. It’s been a while since the commission narrowly voted to approve the project, and the science has changed since then.

There’s also the Oak Bluffs health board. Board members have floated the idea of a townwide ban on artificial turf playing fields. That could prompt another lawsuit, which could delay a new field yet again.

Having secured the upper hand in the courts, the school committee now has the burden of education, mitigation, and monitoring, recognizing that winning this argument through Dover doesn’t mean a thing. 

The sad reality is that while we waited for this lawsuit to unfold, it’s been another year with a subpar field for students, and still no track.


  1. If the MV Times focused on facts rather than spreading fear you would know the turf field is not putting the ground water at risk. Read Tetra Tech’s report to the MVC. They state that the field will have a deminimus impact on the aquified. Horsley & Witten support this conclusion. But what do these scientist know compared to you papers opinion

    • If Mr Donahue and the other supporters of this vanity project focused on the facts they might come to a different conclusion. Turf fields are not safer for student athletes The NFLPA has just reaffirmed their opposition to turf and support of natural grass yet again. Who better to listen to, then those whose very livelihood depends on their physical health?

      • I can guarantee that the NFLPA wouldn’t want to play on a grass field that 9 teams use, play 50 games on, and maintained by one person on a public school’s budget. The NFLPA and all those professional leagues have unlimited resources to install, maintain, and replace, if necessary mid season when it gets unplayable, I don’t think that will happen here, do you? You are comparing professional organizations to a high school, that’s an unfair comparison and I think you know that. Give the high school an unlimited budget, a team of grounds keepers, professional field designers, and multiple grass fields and you’d still a turf field to play field hockey (I’m sure you’ve heard of Title lX) and lacrosse, and all fields meet ADA compliance. Do you think the taxpayers would pay for that? Not on this island or any high school district, that’s why high schools are going to turf.

    • We really want GMO grass seed, chemical fertilizers, chemical herbicides, chemical peticides, mowing machines and tons and tons of water to wash the GMO grass seed, chemical fertilizers, chemical herbicides, chemical peticides, down into the aquifer so that the whole Island can enjoy the grass.

      • albert– stop the BS about all that chemical stuff.
        You know we don’t need that crap anymore
        than we need the PFAS free plastic field.
        Quit the trolling to get a rise for yourself.
        It’s getting old, and it highlights your need to
        say something outrageous.
        get some new material.
        You can do better.

    • If people are concerned with injuries related to turf fields, why do parents support away games at schools with turf fields? Or, potentially, colleges with turf fields? I’m not too sure of an exact number, but I’d say that most high-schools in eastern Mass have at least one multi-use, year-round turf field. Some multiple. Others even, baseball fields as well.

      • Ryan– try to tell your 15 year old football
        playing son or daughter on the team that they
        can’t play an off island game because you are
        concerned they might get injured.
        Good luck with that family interaction.

  2. This editorial fails to mention that the MVRSD followed every legal permitting process and complied with every reg and by-law, and there were plenty of community voices heard in the process. Experts were heard from, and the MVC analyzed and considered their testimony. This editorial claims that there is “perception” that the proposed field will leach chemicals into the aquifer and that it’s the MVRSD’s job to dispel this contention – although they have already done exactly that. Why do proponents of this argument persist despite the pages of evidence introduced to the contrary, and why do you simply ignore the existence of this evidence simply because it runs counter to your narrative? The court has now set aside the specious eleventh hour special permit requirement put forth by a rogue planning board. Any further attempts to introduce new regulations or procedural obstacles will not be a good look for the town. If Oak Bluffs officials continue to obstruct this legally permitted project from moving forward it would be a clear indication of bad faith, and it would open them up to accusations of malfeasance. It’s time for the OB Select Board to step in and explain this to the Planning Board – and the Board of Health if need be. We will hold you accountable for any further legal expenses caused by any additional political chicanery.

  3. The PFAS issue is just one of the negatives associated with artificial turf fields.

    People whom one would expect to be “green” seem to become addled when it comes to artificial turf.

    A lot of people are comfortable arguing that THEIR little corner of the universe isn’t the right place to walk the green talk. Or they hire a few guns to assure the public that it’s all good and green.

    In addition to the environmental issues are also the numerous design problems with the current plan.

    • So you are saying that the professional has failed. Hard to imagine that they continue to make a living with failed designs. Or is it just your non professional opinion. I love all the experts on this island who are not qualified to design and build municipal projects that come out of the woodwork every time they don’t like something or don’t want to spend a dime. It happened with the Tisbury school and will happen with the high school. Come on. You threw it out there. Be specific. What are the design flaws. Be specific.

  4. Here is the problem with the editor of this newspaper and those who choose to ignore all the evidence that has been provided during they 1000’s of pages of testimony and science the school was forced to pay for in order to get through the MVC. Every inch of those pages show that “yes” the school did prove that the field will not harm the aquifer. Can I ask you Mr. Editor, why haven’t you, or any of your followers, actually proven that the field “will” harm the aquifer or even talked about the PFAS that is now in the Oak Bluffs School fields that was installed and fertilized by the Field Fund? Not one shred of evidence has been provided that this field will leach PFAs, none. With the 1000’s of fields out there you mean to tell me not one study supported your claim? Why not ask the Field Fund to show what they used as fertilizer and make them pay for testing?

    Second, you say “But there is an opportunity to work together with the town for a solution.” The school did give the town a settlement offer and the planning board chair, in no public forum, even talked about it. To our knowledge, he never even presented it to his own board. It was never on any agenda and still isn’t on his board’s agenda, a requirement that the judge has demanded of the town and school. The school met in open forum and discussed the ruling, has the planning board done the same? According to the school’s attorney, no he hasn’t. I can’t imagine that this is even legal. The chair, on his own private Facebook page, has posted nothing but negative things about this project. This shows that he isn’t impartial and was bias against the project before his board even heard the case. He should have recused himself from participating on this project in the first place, and was actually asked to do so by a concerned taxpayer. You wonder why the judge ruled against him. Why did the town not meet with the school to even discuss the settlement offer when the town asked to do so? Why haven’t you, in any editorial, called out the planning board for their negligence in managing this whole issue? Do I also have to remind you that the vote was 2-2 to require the special permit, half of his board disagreed with him. If he had recused himself he most likely knew he would lose and the field would have passed.

    Bert Davis is correct, the school has answered every question, proved every point, and paid every bill required of them. All this just to have the planning board chair ignore all the evidence in front of them. The chair likely pressured the building inspector to send it back to his board and asked them to require a special permit after his board voted 3-1 to approve the field as is. I hope the MVC takes all this into consideration when they vote to extend the project. This now proven illegal delay by the planning board was the cause for the school missing the construction deadline.

    You run a newspaper, please report accurately all of the facts regarding an issue and not ignore some of the most important information? Thank you

    • I assure you, there will never be a plastic field here. You have not won. You’re back to the beginning of the process.

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