The bitterly debated multi-million-dollar project to overhaul the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School athletics fields was thrown into limbo Wednesday night after the Oak Bluffs planning board denied a special permit for the plan in a divided vote.

Only four members of the five-member board were eligible to vote; four votes were required for the special permit to be approved. The vote was 2-2.

The permit was needed because the project lies in the town water resource protection overlay district.

Planning for the fields project dates to 2016, but over the past two years the project has become a point of deep division on the Vineyard amid debate over the plan to use artificial turf on the main athletic field.

The $7 million phase one overhaul would include a new 400-meter track and a new main athletic field, repositioned and replaced with artificial turf, as well as new bleachers and other rebuilt outdoor facilities. The plan was approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI) in a close vote in June 2021, after an exhaustive, months-long review.

The Oak Bluffs planning board, whose scope is far more limited than the MVC, began its own exhaustive review in February, closing a public hearing last week. In a written opinion last fall, town counsel Michael Goldsmith advised the board about its scope of review in light of the Dover Amendment, a state law that allows religious and educational groups more latitude to skirt local bylaws. Mr. Goldsmith found that the planning board could not “unreasonably condition” the project in a way that would deny the use.

Proponents of the project have included high school leaders, coaches and student athletes, while opponents have been led by the Field Fund, a vocal Island group that advocates for all-grass playing fields. The two sides have been at odds with each other for months on end, testifying at public forums and sometimes trading harsh critiques.

By contrast on Wednesday night, the planning board meeting saw no debate and only scant, procedural discussion before swiftly voting on a motion to approve the plan.

What little discussion was held revolved around minor questions and clarifications between the planning board and school officials.

Only board member Bill Cleary posed a question about the project when the opportunity was presented, asking for an overview of the filtration system planned for the track and field.

Project architect Chris Huntress said water from the turf field would filter straight down, through layers of stone and filters. The track would have a drain running parallel to the inside lane, leading to a filtration system.

“At least two, if not three layers of filtration fabric,” Mr. Huntress said.

After a short back and forth between school committee member Kris O’Brien and Mr. Hopkins about clarifications on state and local laws governing the board’s decision, a motion was made to approve the special permit as requested.

“So the vote is 2-2, and the motion fails,” board chairman Ewell Hopkins said. “The special permit is denied.”

Mr. Hopkins voted against the plan along with JoJo Lambert. Board members Erik Albert and Bill Cleary voted in favor.

Board member Mark Crossland has recused himself throughout the proceeding.

Mr. Hopkins said the planning board will prepare a written decision in the next two weeks, which the high school will be allowed to review.

“And then we’ll proceed from there,” he said.”

Contacted by phone after the meeting, regional high school district committee chairman Amy Houghton said her committee meets May 17 and will decide the next steps then, including whether to appeal.

“Nothing can happen before then [May 17]; the school committee needs to make the decision,” Ms. Houghton said.