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Major blow dealt to M.V. school's synthetic field project, as Planning Board votes no

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The Oak Bluffs Planning Board voted tonight to halt the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s plans to build an artificial turf field.

The decision — after years of debate — hinged on concerns about what the turf was made with: PFAS chemicals.

The school has been working for years to get a special permit from the Planning Board because the field would be built over an aquifer that provides the community with drinking water. The area is known as a water resource protection overlay district. Many anti-turf advocates have suggested PFAS chemicals — exposure to which is linked to cancer and other health problems — could leach from the field into groundwater.

Health and environmental experts have also raised concerns about climate impacts and micro plastics related to the project.

But proponents for turf fields have said the material is safer for student-athletes in terms of injury prevention and could even provide environmental benefits, given what it takes to maintain grass fields.

None of those issues were discussed before tonight’s vote. After extensive debate and testimony on both sides, the long-awaited decision came at a public meeting that lasted just under 25 minutes. Two board members, JoJo Lambert and Ewell Hopkins, voted against the special permit, and two, Erik Albert and Bill Cleary, voted in favor. Because a fifth member recused himself, all four members would have needed to vote in favor of the special permit for a turf field.

“My personal feeling about plastics in our society would not be enough for me to vote against the project,” Hopkins said during a phone call after the meeting. “But when it’s in a predetermined area of environmental sensitivity, we have mounting evidence that PFAS [chemicals] are bad things, and we know clearly that PFAS are incorporated in what’s in front of us, I was like, ‘This doesn’t make sense here. And… we have alternatives that we have not fully investigated.’” 

It’s a decision that anti-turf advocate Rebekah Thompson, clerk of the Field Fund, said she’s celebrating. She hopes the school will move forward with a grass alternative.

“After seven years of debating this, to have a decisive vote was pretty shocking and exciting,” she said. “It feels great to be maybe putting this to bed once and for all and hopefully getting an opportunity to move forward.”

The Oak Bluffs Board of Health is also considering a moratorium on turf fields made with PFAS, which could prevent synthetic turf fields from being built anywhere in the community in the future.

The school can now appeal the Planning Board’s decision, substantially change its proposal and resubmit, or wait two years to try again on the project that includes a new 400-meter track and a main athletic field. The School Committee will meet May 17 and will decide the next steps then, including whether to appeal.

“This has divided the Martha’s Vineyard community. This has divided the School Committee,” said School Committee chair Amy Houghton. “At the end of the day, my hope is that we can reassess and find a way forward to give a track and athletic field project that’s in keeping with the needs and hopes of our students.”

The Oak Bluffs Planning Board must now write up a formal decision within 14 days and submit that to the school for review.