At the peak of the fall sports season this week, students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School were making the most of their declining athletic fields, which many on the Island are eager to replace.

In its final home game on Monday, the boys’ varsity soccer team dueled with Falmouth Academy on the school’s patchy and uneven game day field, while others practiced on adjacent fields.

A few people stood by the sidelines, including Matt Poole, a member of MV@Play, a community nonprofit that hopes to replace all the fields with a central sports facility including artificial turf in the coming years. The proposal has sparked intense debate since it became public in April, eventually leading the Chilmark and West Tisbury selectmen to refer it to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for review.

Mr. Poole leaned on a fence at the edge of the soccer field and pointed out some of the more glaring imperfections: large patches of dead grass and a noticeable dip along the sidelines that he said turns to a swamp in the rain. He said an adjacent field to the west, where football practice was underway, was in similar condition.

Both sides agree that the school needs better facilities. — Mark Lovewell

MV@play founding member Robert (Spike) Smith noted that the facilities here were built on backfill from when the school was built, and that he often finds glass in the soil. “It was never a good field,” he said.

During the fall season, nine high school teams make use of the school’s four rectangular fields.

Through a small grove to the east, a group of students sat on the edge of another field and received instruction from their coach. That field, and its aging track, hasn’t been used at all this year, and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has barred it from competitions. As a result, all the school track meets have been off-Island.

Many Islanders this year have found themselves mired in a somewhat unfamiliar debate over the merits of grass versus artificial turf. Similar debates have played out across the country, where an increasing number of communities are installing artificial fields, sometimes regretting it later. A generally civil debate on the Island has turned caustic at times, although all involved acknowledge the need for better facilities.

MV@Play, working with Gale Associates of Weymouth, has proposed a three-phase project to develop a modern athletic complex to serve the whole Island. Phase one, which the regional high school committee approved in May and is estimated to cost $3.5 million, includes replacing and reconfiguring the track and field. The new field would consist of plastic turf and plant-based infill — a compromise for MV@Play, which originally proposed a less expensive but controversial infill made from recycled tires. Many still blast the proposal as subjecting Islanders — especially children — to untested and potentially harmful materials such as silica dust, a known carcinogen, and other substances in both the carpet and infill. Concerns also focus on the effects of more plastic in the environment, and the risk of injury on the harder (and hotter) playing surface.

But others point to the challenges of maintaining the current grass fields, and see some combination of grass and artificial turf as the only logical solution.

MV@Play has always maintained that there is going to be some combination of both,” said group co-founder David Wallis, who began meeting with the high school more than a year ago to discuss improvements to the playing fields. Mr. Wallis said he became involved through his role as president of the MV United Soccer, and in response to a general shortage of safe playing fields on the Island. He said about 500 students in grades pre-K through 12 now play soccer on the Island, in addition to other interscholastic sports and adult leagues.

From the beginning, he said, MV@Play has taken its direction from the high school, which among other things has said that no sports should be taken off line during the upgrades. “That’s a lot of the reason why we have to have some artificial surface,” Mr. Wallis said, noting that grass takes time to grow. The group envisions a 90-day construction period for the artificial turf field, compared to at least 18 months for grass. Island businesses have already contributed about $120,000 for the design of phase one, with the remaining funds also expected to come from private donations.

Phases two and three would include the construction of a three-field soccer complex, and improvements to the existing field hockey and football fields. Plans indicate the new surfaces should be either natural or artificial turf, although some MV@Play members anticipate more of the latter.

“I think ultimately what we would love to see is one beautiful grass game field,” Mr. Smith said this week, although he said it was too early to know how the project would play out. “Right now we are fighting to save the track program in phase one of this hopefully multi-phased upgrade.”

Mr. Smith and Mr. Wallis consulted with a number of communities at the outset of the project, including the towns of Concord and Carlisle, where a similar group, CC@Play, worked with Gale Associates to develop new sports facilities, including an artificial turf field that opened in 2015. Mr. Wallis said the two groups have no connection beyond the name, although the similarities have led some to question how much influence Gale Associates has had in driving the project.

Rebekah Thomson, a member of the group Vineyarders for Grass Fields, which advocates for alternatives to artificial turf, said the plan caught Islanders off-guard this year. “Since we don’t have any synthetic fields here already, it was not something that was on people’s radar,” she said. She also pointed to a number of potential health hazards, which have been a point of contention, at least partly as a result of scientific uncertainty and a lack of independent studies. “Very few people are aware of the environmental and toxicological and financial ramifications,” she said.

Gale Associates unveiled the three-phase project last April at a meeting of the regional school committee, which voted unanimously to authorize the bidding for phase one, pending a final licensing agreement with MV@Play, and “to call a public meeting to explore the nature of the project as soon as possible,” according to the minutes of the meeting. “This was the first presentation to the [committee] and the larger Island community as well as the student body were unaware of the plan,” according to the minutes.

Two public meetings were held in the spring, at which students, coaches, administrators and members of the community weighed in on both sides of the issue. Public debate simmered for weeks, with each side launching a public petition for its cause. (As of this week, 750 people had signed the petition opposing artificial turf and 519 had signed the petition in favor.)

The high school committee voted at the second public meeting to approve the licensing agreement, with committee members Robert Lionette and Theresa Manning dissenting. “There are huge issues that we have barely scratched the surface of — health, environment, cost,” Mr. Lionette said at the meeting. Vineyarders for Grass Fields plans to hold its own public meeting in the coming weeks.

Questions have lingered regarding the agreement itself, which places all financial responsibility on MV@Play. The contract does not require a public bidding process, which Mr. Smith saw as a major advantage, since that also means that MV@Play is not obligated to hire the lowest bidder. He added that a single company, already under consideration, would perform almost all of the work. “That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to stay out of the public bid,” he said. “We didn’t want a contractor that doesn’t have a stellar track record.” Mr. Wallis said the idea was to have Gale Associates handle the bidding and contracting, although he said the company played no role in drafting the agreement. “They work for us in order to seek out the right construction companies and workers to put before us to chose from, as well as contracts and bid documents,” he said, adding that the company has had “tremendous experience” throughout New England. But not everyone is so optimistic. In an email provided to the Gazette, one environmental attorney described the licensing agreement as an “outsourcing scheme” that seeks to circumvent the public bidding process. “According to this contract, MV@PLAY is not accountable to the community or taxpayers at all,” said the attorney, who did not wish to be identified. “They only have to show their plans to people or groups that they designate. No public forum. No transparency. No accountability.”

Vineyard schools superintendent Matthew D’Andrea, who signed the agreement along with former school committee chairman Lisa Reagan and Mr. Wallis in June, said the school does in fact require a public bidding process, but that the agreement allows for some flexibility, since the project amounts to a gift from MV@Play. “It’s basically that we hand the project over to them and they complete the project and they hand it back to us,” he said.

Among other things, the agreement requires MV@Play to carry insurance and bear the cost of the project in the event that the high school terminates the contract. “We can’t do anything without the school’s approval, and they can terminate the contract at any time,” said Mr. Smith. But once the project is complete, the school becomes responsible for maintaining the new facilities, which would mean replacing the artificial turf at the end of its expected 10 to 15-year lifespan.

Mr. Smith said MV@Play is looking into the possibility of setting up an endowment for future maintenance, although that is not outlined in the agreement. As an indicator of potential cost, the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury plans to spend about $875,000 to replace two artificial turf fields on its campus in the near future. Mrs. Thomson expected the cost would be even higher on the Vineyard, especially in light of the more expensive plant-based infill.

But advocates for artificial turf say it offers a less expensive option in the long run, since it can handle more player traffic and requires less regular maintenance such as fertilization and mowing. (They also point to the benefits for Lagoon Pond to the north, which suffers from an overabundance of nitrogen and resulting algal blooms.)

Mr. D’Andrea said the high school has fallen short when it comes to equipment and expertise in maintaining its grass fields, although he pointed to other problems as well. “It’s not so much whether we could maintain them, it’s the amount of use,” he said of the fields, noting that the MV@Play project would itself lead to heavier traffic by creating a centralized facility. “Even if we have one [artificial] turf field, it would take some of the pressure off that grass,” he said, echoing the position of MV@Play members.

Many advocates for or against the proposal — including members of the two opposing community groups — are themselves athletes or the parents of athletes.

Vineyarders for Grass Fields has raised $5,000 for a new aerator that it believes could help the high school maintain its current grass fields. The group also hopes to purchase a used tractor and sponsor training programs for the school groundskeeper, facilities director and horticulturalist. Mrs. Thomson said the overall goal is to raise $1 million to complement Oak Bluffs community preservation funds already allocated for the new track. In addition to his work with MV@Play, Mr. Smith, who owns a well-known family plumbing business in Edgartown, has volunteered a large amount of time to restoring the high school’s irrigation system, which itself presents a hazard to athletes, since the nozzles often protrude above the surface. As a result, Mr. Smith was invited to serve on the school’s athletic fields committee and is working to help the school maintain its grass fields. The regional school committee has yet to accept the donation from Vineyarders for Grass Fields, although Mr. D’Andrea said he appreciates the gesture. “People on both sides, all across the Island, have stepped up,” he said. “They are very generous and helpful, and it’s greatly appreciated.”

This story has been corrected from an earlier version that mistakenly attributed a quote to Matt Poole. It was Robert Smith who said he has found glass in the playing fields at the regional high school, which were built on backfill.