The Oak Bluffs School Board voted to challenge another city council in a bid to advance plans to install an artificial turf pitch at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
During a tense three-hour meeting on Monday evening, the school committee focused on how to proceed after the city’s planning board voted weeks earlier to effectively cancel the sod project.
The school had been working for three and a half years to obtain a special permit from the Planning Board because the grass pitch would be built over an aquifer that provides drinking water to the community. Many anti-turf advocates have expressed concern that per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS chemicals – which are linked to cancer and other health problems – could seep from the field into groundwater.
This point has been controversial. Independent consultants who reviewed PFAS compounds in the proposed area for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission found the amounts too small to be significant.
There have also been concerns about the climate impacts of the turf field, as the materials would be shipped to the island and possibly disposed of. Opponents say a grass pitch is the responsible choice.
In a split decision on May 4, two Planning Board members voted against the special permit and two voted for it. A majority vote was required for the proposal to proceed. This decision could have been the beginning of the end of the turf project.
Last night, however, it was up to the school committee to decide how to react. His main options were to appeal the Planning Council’s decision, drastically alter his proposal and resubmit it, or wait two years to try again.
After an executive session out of public view, the committee voted 5-4 in favor of the appeal, which will keep the dream of a grass pitch alive.
Committee member Lou Paciello, who represents Edgartown, said the project had already been thoroughly scrutinized by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and his constituents felt it was getting off the ground.
“In my dealings with the community, especially over the last two months…it’s overwhelmingly supported to go on appeal. That’s all I can say,” he said before voting in favor of an appeal. “Now let’s go back to town, go to court and settle this.”
But after a seven-year process, other committee members were ready to move on.
“For me, it is about the costs and the time it will take to delay students again. The priority for me is to have a project that is an athletics project. The priority for me is not artificial turf,” said committee chair Amy Houghton, who voted against the appeal.
She said she would prefer to resubmit an athletics project to the Planning Board that does not include turf. “It just seems a shame that we’re once again going to put more time behind this and get into a really ugly game between two municipal entities,” she said.
Other school board members who voted against an appeal expressed concern that expanding 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 sports fields project has already spent or committed nearly $493,000.
“It’s not an easy decision to keep moving forward and I understand that and respect that,” said Oak Bluffs rep Kris O’Brien, who voted in favor of the appeal. “I’m sorry for the taxpayers and the burden this is, but…we need to stand up for and provide for these students.”
A third municipal entity, the Oak Bluffs Board of Health, is considering a moratorium on sod fields made with PFAS. If passed, it could prevent the construction of sod fields anywhere in the community in the future.