Oak Bluffs nixes funding for field appeal 

The decision was made during a Thursday morning select board meeting. 

The Oak Bluffs select board voted in a split decision to deny any more funding toward the field litigation. —Eunki Seonwoo

Oak Bluffs will no longer be funding the controversial turf field appeal, calling into question how the lawsuit will continue.

The town’s select board decided in a 3-2 vote to halt funding for the litigation. Board members Emma Green-Beach and Gail Barmakian cast dissenting votes. 

Last month, the Oak Bluffs planning board filed an appeal against Massachusetts Land Court Judge Kevin T. Smith’s ruling in favor of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee. In the ruling, the judge annulled the planning board’s denial of the committee’s permit request to construct a synthetic turf field. Smith pointed to a state law called the Dover Amendment, which gives special protections to projects with an educational component, for his ruling. 

During the special meeting on Thursday morning, most select board members expressed their opposition to the appeal. 

Select board member Thomas Hallahan started the conversation by saying that he, and likely others in the community, felt the lawsuit was no longer about “turf versus grass,” but about the Dover Amendment. 

“This can go through the courts, and will be costly,” he said. “I do not believe it is our position to invest money and time, ill will, amongst our residents across the Island to pursue this path.” 

Select board member Dion Alley echoed Hallahan’s sentiments, and said the issue has moved to the rights of the town and the high school, adding it was important to get a ruling on the Dover Amendment, considering the upcoming high school building overhaul. 

“It’s time for us to move forward,” Alley said, adding that Oak Bluffs will need to cooperate with other Island towns, not just the high school, on different issues. “It’s not just turf, it’s going to be climate … We saw it in the last storm. I think this goes much further than this.” 

Select board member Jason Balboni also said it was time to take the next steps forward. “This is so divisive in our community,” he said. “We’ve gone down the road, and I think it’s just time to stop with this piece of it. So I’m not in favor of continuing on in any more litigation in this manner.”

The select board isn’t the only town body to express opposition toward the appeal. Earlier this month, the Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee voted 7-0, with two abstentions, to send a letter to the planning board recommending no more funds be used for the lawsuit. 

Barmakian cautioned her fellow board members that their purview should be on the financial impact of the appeal, not the merits behind it. 

“To question the judgment and decision of another elected board that has the exclusive jurisdiction over the subject matter of this, I think we’re going down a dangerous road,” she said. 

Green-Beach said while she agrees with the points made by the other board members, she expressed concern that the judge’s ruling seemed to indicate that Dover Amendment, a law that was adopted before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was even established, “supersedes the town’s authority, and our right to try and protect our drinking water.” 

“I don’t understand how that can possibly sit right with anybody,” she said, adding that the town created the water protection overlay district to help protect the drinking water of Oak Bluffs and neighboring towns. 

Green-Beach continued that the issue is divisive, and put some people at odds with each other, but the litigation went beyond just a new athletics facility. “Part of our job as a select board is to uphold our town policies and bylaws, is it not?” she said. “Are we going to blatantly sort of choose now that some bylaws aren’t worth defending?” 

Barmakian said her reading of the judge’s ruling was that he “almost left the door open” for the case. 

When Barmakian asked what town bylaws say about the select board authorizing legal representation of another town board, Oak Bluffs town administrator Deborah Potter said the select board is the authority that approves funding for all legal activities for other town bodies. Additionally, funding for legal activities would need to be appropriated during a town meeting. Potter also said the select board was the authorizing body even for pro bono legal services, to avoid conflict-of-interest issues.

Regarding the legal spending, there was some uncertainty regarding how much exactly was spent for the field litigation. According to the Oak Bluffs Select Board executive assistant, Debra Alley, the planning board is shown to have spent $45,600 in legal fees. Town counsel Michael Goldsmith said $35,000 has been billed to the town since the field lawsuit was filed, and the remaining amount may be from other advice the planning board received over the years. 

Hallahan asked whether a vote from the select board to deny any more legal funding toward the field lawsuit would include the planning board’s appeal that was already filed, and Goldsmith confirmed this would be the case. “If the board decides the town is not going to fund legal services going forward, that could include the present appeal,” Goldsmith said. 

Green-Beach pushed on whether the legal funding denial would be from a financial or a political basis. 

“To me, if this is about money, the value of our drinking water is priceless, and the cost of cleaning up our drinking water is priceless,” Green-Beach said, adding that she was referring to the town’s right to protect drinking water, not the direct impact on drinking water from the field project. “If it’s of a political nature, these things are really hard, but this is our drinking water that the town voted [for], and created this overlay district to protect.” 

Alley said there are ways to “catch and clean the water” if the field was turf, so that it doesn’t go directly into the aquifer. Moving past the field surface, he said, the decision came down to “who’s invoking whose will here.” 

“The town of Oak Bluffs has rights and responsibilities to its residents, I agree with that 100 percent,” he said. “It’s also the rights and responsibilities to our residents, also, to move this forward.” 

Alley continued that while legal avenues were pursued, the town and the school committee did conduct enough negotiations. “That’s why I would prefer to put a stop to spending any more money on these appeals, and go back and work on a solution,” he said. 

Hallahan also voiced favor on halting legal funding for the field litigation. “Denying any further funding of litigation in regard to the turf field case would show goodwill from the select board,” he said, pointing out that turf proponents had approached the select board before with the idea of potentially moving the field project farther away. “If we take a move not to fund, I think that would speak volumes to our neighbors, and we could at least start to have the dialogue about how to best protect our water source, as well as new technology that is out there for drainage.” 

Barmakian said while she likes the idea of abandoning the appeal and conducting more negotiations, this approach gives “no impetus or leverage” to the school committee to “try and work this out.” 

“I don’t really think it’s feasible at this point with what their public position has been,” she said. 

Green-Beach said there had been some discussion about potentially moving the field project out of the overlay district. “But they wanted guarantees we couldn’t give, because there wasn’t an application or new application material … our response was, ‘Drop your appeal and move it,’” she said.

After further discussion, Hallahan made a motion to halt funding toward litigation “involving or related to” the field lawsuit. Afterward, the vote was passed. 

Public comments were not taken during the meeting, although people were invited to submit their thoughts in writing.