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Vineyard School Committee will fight for artificial turf after vote

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School
Lyla Griswold
Public domain
Martha's Vineyard Regional High School

The Oak Bluffs School Committee voted to challenge another town board in an attempt to move forward with plans to install an artificial turf field at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

During a tense, three-hour meeting Monday night, the School Committee focused on how to proceed after the town’s Planning Board voted weeks earlier to effectively quash the turf project.

The school had been working for three-and-a-half years to obtain a special permit from the Planning Board because the turf field would be built over an aquifer that provides the community with drinking water. Many anti-turf advocates have expressed fears that per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS chemicals — which are linked to cancer and other health problems — could leach from the field into groundwater.

This point has been controversial. Independent consultants who reviewed PFAS compounds in the proposed field for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission deemed the amounts too small to be meaningful.

There have also been concerns about the turf field’s climate impacts because the materials would be shipped to the island and eventually disposed of. Opponents say a grass field is the responsible choice.

In a split decision on May 4, two Planning Board members voted against the special permit and two voted in favor. A majority vote was needed for the proposal to move forward. That move could have been the beginning of the end for the turf project.

Last night, though, it was up to the School Committee to decide how to respond. Its main options were to appeal the Planning Board’s decision, substantially change its proposal and resubmit, or wait two years to try again.

After an executive session outside of public view, the committee voted 5-4 in favor of the appeal, which will keep the dream of a turf field alive.

Committee member Lou Paciello, who represents Edgartown, said this project previously passed exhaustive review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and his constituents were under the impression it was getting under way.

“In my dealings with the community, especially in the past two months … it’s overwhelmingly supported to go to appeal. That’s all I can say,” he said before voting in favor of an appeal. “Now, let’s go back to the town, go to the courts, and get this straightened out.”

But after a seven-year process, other committee members were ready to move on.

“For me it’s about the costs and the time it’s going to take to put things on a delay for students yet again. The priority for me is to have a project that is a track-and-field project. The priority for me is not artificial turf,” said committee Chair Amy Houghton, who voted against the appeal.

She said she’d prefer to resubmit a track-and-field project to the Planning Board that doesn’t include turf. “It just seems a shame that we are going to yet again put more time behind this and get in a really ugly match between two municipal entities,” she said.

Other School Committee members who voted against an appeal expressed concern that extending the process would create more divisions within the community.

By appealing, the board expects to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. School system Treasurer Mark Friedman said the athletic fields project has already spent or committed nearly $493,000.

“It’s not an easy decision to continue to move forward and I understand that and I respect that,” said Oak Bluffs representative Kris O’Brien, who voted in favor of appeal. “I’m sorry for the taxpayers and the burden that this is but … we have to advocate and provide for these students.”

A third municipal entity, the Oak Bluffs Board of Health, is considering a moratorium on turf fields made with PFAS. If enacted, that could prevent turf fields from being built anywhere in the community in the future.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.