Despite winning its two-year legal fight over a proposed artificial turf field at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, the school committee this week agreed to abandon the controversial project — but not the potential use of turf itself.

In the first of three actions on the matter Monday night, committee members voted 7-1 to give the 24-member school building committee a blank slate for the entire campus, in order to plan a complete overhaul of the school.

The high school committee also voted 5-3 to withdraw its applications for the now-scrapped turf field project, including the demolition permit recently filed with the town of Oak Bluffs and the application for modification that was approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in June, 2021.

The 24-member building committee represents all six Island towns in the process of developing a new or fully renovated high school in partnership with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which has accepted the school into its highly competitive reimbursement program.

The building committee could eventually decide to keep a turf field, but the withdrawal means the approvals process would have to start over.

“We are taking off all limitations for the MSBA project to move forward in any way that it possibly could work … It’s all on the table,” committee chair Kathryn Schertzer said. 

“I’m thrilled at [this] vote,” high school principal Sara Dingledy told the committee. “It opens up the possibility for us to truly go forward transparently.”

The idea of a turf field at the high school has been contentious for years and became the subject of a lawsuit between the school and the Oak Bluffs planning board. The board denied the school committee’s application for a field in 2022, but the rejection was annulled by a state Land Court judge late last year. 

Committee member Louis Paciello, who cast the one dissent in the MSBA vote, said the decision to now drop the approved project now would discourage and even anger many Islanders who support school athletics.

“You’re wearing out the community and the people who were willing to reach in their pockets and … donate money to these projects,” Mr. Paciello said.

“They’re sick of talk,” he said. “They want to see results.”

Athletic fields are not included in the state building authority’s reimbursement program, which is expected to provide about 38 per cent of the cost to rebuild or extensively renovate the high school.

Committee members Kris O’Brien, Mr. Paciello and Ms. Schertzer voted against the Martha’s Vineyard Commission application withdrawal motion, which was largely symbolic as the applications would have expired without action

After agreeing to give the building committee oversight for the entire campus, the school committee voted 6-2 to withdraw its Jan. 8 decision to ask town select boards for a non-binding referendum on artificial turf versus natural grass fields. Roxanne Ackerman and Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter voted in the minority.

Ms. O’Brien, who had opposed the Jan. 8 motion, said the request fell outside the school committee’s responsibilities.

“We have been living [with] the reactions and the consequences of boards overstepping their authorities,” Ms. O’Brien said. 

“It is not the authority of the school committee to make non-binding referendum requests of the select boards,” she said.

All three motions were proposed by Michael Watts, who has consistently backed the turf field plan in the past.

In an interview with the Gazette, Mr. Watts said he believes it’s time for a fresh start, now that the building committee is about to embark on a $2.1 million feasibility study approved by Island voters last year.

“To take an existing committee and constrain the canvas they were going to work with, I didn’t think was a good idea anymore,” Mr. Watts said Tuesday.

Mr. Watts said he also was inspired by project manager Michael Owen of CHA consulting, the company picked to lead the school reconstruction, who spoke at Monday's meeting urging the school committee to consider the entire campus. 

“Mike was saying, 'You have a blank canvas. Let's use it,'” Mr. Watts said, adding that he considers athletic facilities an integral part of the high school experience.

“It's time to look at the whole thing,” he said.

Mr. Watts acknowledged that the turf field debate has evoked strong feelings on both sides of the question. 

“The process itself was very difficult and fraught with a lot of opinion and emotion ... My hope of hopes is that the difficult, challenging feelings start to subside, all the way around,” Mr. Watts said.