Penfield building committee to ‘stop, look and listen’

It might not have been a tsunami, but there was a sizable wave of discontent Aug. 14 as the Penfield Building Committee opened its recommendations for rebuilding Penfield Pavilion to public comment. The pavilion on Penfield Beach has been closed since it was damaged by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

Penfield Pavilion stands closed and fenced off.

Penfield Pavilion stands closed and fenced off while the Penfield Building Committee differs on repair options. (Miriam Kelliher photo)

The meeting began without any sign of dissent, then when committee chairman James Bradley asked if there was any business to be discussed, committee secretary William Sapone outlined problems he saw with the process as a whole, gave suggestions for further consideration by the committee, thanked them, and quit.

Committee secretary dissents

Bradley began the meeting by presenting an overview of the different options considered by the committee and the committee’s choice of option seven. It was then that committee secretary William Sapone said he would like to add some comments.

Sapone said he was concerned about a rush toward design and construction without proper vetting.
He noted that First Selectman Michael Tetreau indicated during the Aug. 6 presentation to the Board of Selectmen that time was not a concern, and that what was important was to find the “right solution for the people of Fairfield.” Sapone said option seven was “far from the right solution.”

Sapone said he felt option one, the repair of the existing pavilion, was the least expensive for the town. This alternative had been rejected by the committee on the grounds of unstable soil conditions, but Sapone said that no engineering reports supported this claim.

Another concern Sapone mentioned was leaving the bulkhead in place, as he thought it would continue to contribute to beach erosion. “Over time, with future storms, the beach itself will be repeatedly destroyed, until the coastline adapts and there will no longer be a beach in front of the pavilion.”

Sapone then outlined a number of suggestions for improving option seven which he said would deliver a “lower-cost, shorter construction schedule, reduced site impact and improved access to the beach.”

Sapone estimated the savings of his changes at approximately $1.2 million, so that rather than the projected $4.5 million, he said, the cost of the renovation would be around $3.3 million, more in line with the actual value of the building.

Sapone concluded, “I can no longer support the committee’s work, and so this is my last meeting. I am therefore resigning from the Penfield building committee effective immediately,” and walked quietly out of the meeting.

Bradley said Sapone’s suggestions would be entered in the committee’s records. He then gave a brief account of the project, noting that the committee was formed in December 2013 with the directive to review and recommend options and manage the repair of the Penfield Pavilion project.

After having 17 meetings, all publicly noticed, Bradley stated, “We have had plenty of public comment but not a lot of public participation,” adding, “We have the regulars who are very vocal. And we answer questions during the public comment period.”

Bradley noted “I have to say, to the point that Bill was making, we’ve come right down to the end in a rush but that’s the way things work, and in this business pressure doesn’t hurt towards the end, because decisions have to be made.”

Presenting the options

Kevin Chamberlain, of DeStefano & Chamberlain Architectural Engineers, which along with Shawmut Design and Construction has been working with the committee on developing repair and renovation alternatives, gave a PowerPoint presentation explaining option seven. First, Chamberlain said, the east wing lockers would be demolished, then the west wing would be moved to the parking lot as new piles were installed, and then moved back onto the structure.

Chamberlain noted that Penfield Beach is in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated V flood zone, requiring a base elevation of 13 feet, which option seven provides. He added that option seven would fortify or “armor” the front of the bulkhead with stone rip wrap.

Chamberlain said his company would not sign off on option one, and Bradley added that this seemingly inexpensive option might end up costing more than its projected cost of $3.2 million, due to the difficulty of working on footings on unstable soil.

Bradley said, “This is really coming down to a question of risk. What kind of risk does the town want to take? Do they want to bring the building up to the current FEMA requirements and sleep at night, or do we want to put it back where it was when we know that two storms have damaged it?”

Public airs views

During the public comment session, almost all lauded the committee for their hard work. Some balked at the size of the project, others the cost, and several spoke up in defense of the restoration.

Kathy Niznansky asked if any people in the town would have a say in the choice. “Why do you have to go big? Who’s paying for this? We don’t need to build this big monstrosity. I would beg that you go simpler.” She then noted that directing this money for education or senior services might be better for the town.

Ellen Jacob (RTM-9), who serves on the finance committee, said she felt a bit of déjà vu. “Last summer around the same time we heard many of the same comments. I am wondering when you present all your plans, why we are still missing one that was asked for way back then, which is the simpler solution?”

Jacob expressed concern for the cost of rebuilding on such a large scale and noted that the town is still paying for the first renovation.

“This is a town that is facing a lot of financial pressure; taxes that people are beginning to feel are unaffordable,” said Jacob. “We are still paying for debt service on the first renovation of Penfield. We are going to be adding to our debt service over another debt service. The simplest solutions right now don’t even seem to be in your presentation.”

Lauren O’Brien (RTM-5) admonished, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And here we go — round three. You can’t fight Mother Nature.” She mentioned predictions for a future increase in rainstorms and hurricanes, noting a wave of a different nature: “We have a silver tsunami coming. We have aging seniors. I don’t think we can afford to rebuild in good conscience.”

Tara Coppola asked that an additional alternative not to rebuild be added to the list of options.
David Sturges said he felt the pavilion was a boon to the beach area and an affordable alternative to private beach clubs. Jim Gallagher, who chaired the first renovation of the Pavilion, said the building should be rebuilt, but added, “I do take issue with most of the plans you have here. Just to move the building is going to cost in excess of a million dollars. You have to look at a better, more cost-efficient alternative.”

Mark Greenstein said that while he agreed with Gallagher and Sapone that “the bulkhead is the culprit — I don’t think it should ever have been there,” he supports restoration. “I have used this beach since I was a little boy,” Greenstein said. “The beach is a huge attraction. I don’t care how much money the town spends because we’re going to get it back.”

Fairfield Beach Residents Association President Paige Herman said the building should remain, but thought  “it should be on a ballot for the townspeople to vote on, with different options presented.”

Cost considerations

Fairfield’s Director of Public Works Joe Michelangelo posited best and worst case scenarios of option seven’s cost to the town, taking into account $1.75 million the town received from an insurance claim on the damage, a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development grant of $500,000, and a projected 75% Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for flood mitigation costs.

In the best case, Michelangelo said, the town would pay $937,500. However, if mitigation costs exceed  repair costs, the town might be responsible for over $1.3 million, he said.

Reached for comment after the meeting, Sapone said the “town boards and other decision-making bodies should vet this before any more money is spent.” As damage to the building was less than 50% of its valuation, Sapone said, it doesn’t have to comply with FEMA regulations for the area.

“It seems to me you might want to get optimal value out of this [the Pavilion] before you write it off. There is a one-percent chance per year that you’ll have a flood over 13 feet. At least you will get some value out of this over time.” He ceded, “Some people might not like to take that one percent risk. Our engineer did not look at this, would not analyze it.”

Slowing the process

“Bill has been a particular champion for the lowest cost,” says Bradley, noting that Sapone was a great asset to the process.

“We are going to do a stop, look and listen.” Bradley said. “We have postponed our presentation before the RTM. We are going to meet again and consider some of Bill’s comments, and some of the public’s comments. That was a great meeting.”

Committee member Ian Bass said Sapone’s plan to demolish the locker wing, drill a new pile foundation in its place and then place the west wing on top of that warranted further consideration. Bass said he feels that reassessment can only be a good thing.

“Once we got to option seven everything seemed to move forward quickly. Now we have a window of opportunity to re-evaluate not only Mr. Sapone’s suggestions, but also the suggestions of a majority of residents who have spoken out at all three public forums stating that they would like either no pavilion or a smaller Pavilion.”

Bradley said the Committee does not decide, but only makes recommendations. He noted the size of the new footprint for the committee’s recommended option is the same, if not smaller, as what was there.

As of now, Bradley said, the decision will come down to approval by three governing bodies: the Board of Selectmen, the Representative Town Meeting and the Board of Finance.

Committee member Andrew Graceffa encouraged those present at the Aug. 14 meeting to contact their RTM members with questions or input

Minutes, engineering reports and related documents can be found on the building committee website at www.fairfieldct.org/pbc.

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