When the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School looks to overhaul its campus in Oak Bluffs, it will have one less option when it comes to athletic fields. 

The Oak Bluffs board of health Tuesday banned the installation of artificial turf playing surfaces in town, quietly shutting the door on one of the Island’s most divisive issues. The board, which had pondered issuing a moratorium on artificial playing surfaces for nearly two years, said its decision was done to protect water quality from harmful and long-lasting chemicals known as PFAS.

“It was basically all about water quality,” said board member Tom Zinno. 

The ban extends to all artificial turf fields of any size in town, though it could be lifted if a reasonable alternative to products with PFAS was approved by the board of health. 

Going back to 2016, the regional high school has talked about re-doing its athletic facilities, including a new track and an artificial turf field. Plans for the field were approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in 2021, but later rejected by the Oak Bluffs planning board. 

The planning board cited concerns that chemicals from the plastic field could contaminate the Island’s main aquifer. 

The regional high school committee fought the planning board’s denial in state Land Court, and a judge late last year overruled the board, saying it overstepped its authority. 

The ruling seemed poised to allow the field to be built and the district at one point even started to request permits to get the work started. But the school committee eventually decided to put the field on hold as it considers new high school plans

Board of health chair William White emphasized that the decision was made with public health in mind, not politics. 

“The board of health’s main doctrine is public health,” said board chair William White. “It’s our responsibility as three separate commissioners to make those kinds of calls… Politics have nothing to do with my decision.” 

Health agent Garrett Albiston said the board changed course from the previously proposed moratorium, which would have stopped artificial fields for a certain time period, because the board felt natural grass was an available alternative to turf. 

The board decided to not outlaw running tracks with PFAS because there are no PFAS-free tracks available, Mr. Albiston said. 

“There is no reasonable alternative to the tracks right now,” he said. “The technology, with how they make things, it’s just not there. If there was a reasonable alternative to the other tracks, then that would be banned as well.” 

As contentious as the topic as the turf field has been, Tuesday’s 10 a.m. meeting was sparsely attended and it lasted less than 20 minutes. Only Oak Bluffs resident Maura McGroarty was in attendance. 

She felt that instituting a ban over one project was misguided. 

“That doesn’t seem right,” she said. “It seems to be less on the science of PFAS and more on the politics of grass versus plastic.”

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee member Michael Watts said he was unaware of the meeting, but said the school would continue to make plans for a renewed campus. 

“I think it gives the building project and the school committee direction on where we can go next,” he said. “I’m glad to see it in writing.” 

School officials Tuesday morning were meeting with potential designers who would work with the district’s owner’s project manager to study options for the school moving forward.

During Tuesday’s discussion, the board of health raised the new federal limits on PFAS contamination in drinking water and said that more work would be needed to protect the Island. 

“There’s a whole lot of aspects to the PFAS problem with contamination of the aquifer beyond just the turf field,” said board member James Butterick. “All of it deserves attention.”