The long-simmering controversy over a planned turf field at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School spilled over into town meetings this year, with West Tisbury voters rejecting the town’s entire share of the school budget in a protest over legal spending.

The project has been in limbo for a year since the school sued the Oak Bluffs planning board in Land Court over its denial of a special permit for the project. Interest in the slow grinding legal battle was rekindled when the school committee voted earlier this month to continue the case to conclusion with no cap on expenses.

Here is an explainer on how the case came to be and what is going on now.

What is the turf project all about?

The regional school district has considered using artificial turf going back to 2016, when MV@Play, a nonprofit group started by Vineyard parents, proposed the idea as part of a revamp of the district’s athletic facilities, which have been in poor condition for years. The project would include putting in a new 400-meter track, a synthetic turf field, a grandstand and renovations to the school’s other grass fields.

The proposal immediately drew opposition from Islanders concerned about the long-term environmental and health impacts of any synthetic materials. A group called the Field Fund offered an alternative plan employing natural grass fields, but negotiations with the school district fell apart. Ultimately, the district decided to move forward on an $11 million plan that included a main turf field and five natural grass fields.

Wasn’t it approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission?

Yes. In 2021, the project was referred  to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI). After hours of meetings and expert testimony, the MVC approved the plan on a 10-6 vote.

How did the Oak Bluffs planning board get involved?

After the Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved the project in June 2021, it went to the Oak Bluffs planning board for town approval. The board contended that the school needed a special permit because the turf field was planned to be within the town’s water protection overlay district.

The school has claimed it doesn’t need the permit, but applied in a sense of cooperation.

The athletic field plan was bitterly debated for several hearings, with several people concerned about the artificial turf’s potential to harm the area’s water quality with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS. PFAS have been linked to increased risk of cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease and other negative health outcomes.

In May 2022, the planning board was split on the special permit application, ending up in a 2-2 tie vote.

Without an affirmative vote, the special permit was rejected.

In its formal permit denial, the board concluded that PFAS chemicals from the turf would leach into the water, posing a hazard to the aquifer.

So what is the basis for the school district’s lawsuit against the planning board?

In June 2022, the school district appealed the planning board’s decision, saying the field should be allowed by right under the town’s zoning bylaws because it is protected by the so-called “Dover Amendment,” a state provision that exempts agricultural, religious and educational uses from certain zoning restrictions.

The school argues that, under the Dover Amendment, the town doesn’t have any right to “regulate, restrict, or prohibit” the school’s educational use of the property through the town’s bylaw.

According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the state enacted the Dover Amendment in 1950 in response to local zoning bylaws that prohibited religious schools within a town’s residential neighborhood.

Zoning regulations can’t stop the use of land or structures for educational purposes, though the use of them can be subject to “reasonable regulations” on the size of the buildings, yard sizes, lot areas, setbacks, open space, parking and lot coverage.

In recent court filings, the town contends the field does fall under the “open space” category in the Dover Amendment, and noted that the school has applied in the past for town open space funds in order to restore the track, a part of the athletic complex revamp that includes the turf field.

“The District cannot have it both ways,” the town attorney wrote.

Where does the lawsuit stand now?

The district sued the Oak Bluffs planning board in Land Court last year, and since then, the two sides have filed motions back and forth arguing the merits of the case ahead of a potential trial.

The judge, the Hon. Kevin Smith is currently considering a motion by the school district for partial summary judgment.
The planning board contends the school district is reading the Dover amendment too broadly and claims the board wasn’t denying the district’s proposed use of the field, just the artificial turf that the school wanted to use.

The town has responded that a judgment before a trial is not the “proper vehicle to resolve this dispute between public bodies.”

How does the West Tisbury vote factor into all this?

The school’s legal budget, the fund used to pay for the lawsuit, is wrapped into its overall budget that is voted on annually at town meetings across the Island.

Earlier this month, the regional school committee, in a split vote, decided to continue funding the lawsuit after it spent the initial $30,000 in legal fees that it had set aside for the case.

In protest of the continued spending, West Tisbury voters at town meeting last week denied the school’s budget, a move that could send the school back to the drawing board if two more towns also reject the budget.

If the school can’t get four of the six Island towns to pass the budget, the school committee will have to go back into the budget. If West Tisbury is in the minority, it would be the town’s responsibility to convene a special town meeting to approve its share of the budget, schools superintendent Richard Smith said.

Edgartown and Oak Bluffs already voted in the school budget; Tisbury and Chilmark have their town meetings next week and Aquinnah is in May.

School officials have noted that the additional legal spending, while going over the initial limit set by the school, hasn’t come close to exhausting the high school’s legal budget line.

What happens next?

The land court will rule on the school’s motion for summary judgment in the case. A hearing has not yet been scheduled. The high school school committee has called an executive session on Monday to talk about the lawsuit and “to consider settlement proposals to offer” to Oak Bluffs.