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First step for Penfield repair panel: What went wrong during Sandy?

Published 7:23 am, Friday, January 10, 2014
  • Why didn't the brand-new Penfield Pavilion's underpinnings stand up to the tidal surge of Superstorm Sandy? That question and others will be addressed before a committee recommends what to do with the damaged beach facility, which was open less than one full season. Photo: Contributed Photo / Fairfield Citizen
    Why didn't the brand-new Penfield Pavilion's underpinnings stand up to the tidal surge of Superstorm Sandy? That question and others will be addressed before a committee recommends what to do with the damaged beach facility, which was open less than one full season. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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The new Penfield Building Committee has yet to make any decisions on what to do with the storm-ravaged Penfield Pavilion.

But what happened to the popular waterfront pavilion during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 -- just 15 months after its $5.5 million reconstruction was completed -- will play a key role in that decision.

"We've got to figure out what worked and what didn't work," James Bradley, the committee's chairman, said at Thursday evening's meeting in Sullivan-Independence Hall. He said the committee needs to understand why the pavilion was damaged to design a structure that can withstand extreme weather in the future.

The committee decided to invite representatives from Roberge Associates Coastal Engineers, LLC, a Stratford firm that prepared a report on the pavilion in June, to its next meeting to discuss the report and answer questions about tidal conditions that affect the Fairfield Beach Road property in storms.

"We'd like to really understand the issues and the coastal challenges that we have," Bradley said. "The coastal engineer is our priority at the moment; the structural engineer to follow." The structural engineer, which also studied the storm-damaged pavilion, is J.M. Albaine Engineers, LLC in Waterford.

But Bradley said the committee has to be "cautious we don't get dragged into regional flood issues and [Army Corps of Engineers'] `Let's replenish the beach' issues. We're in the business of solving the problem for Penfield, not the state of Connecticut or Fairfield."

Kristin Robinson of Puritan Road, who spoke during public comment, agreed the committee needs to investigate coastal challenges, though she indicated she'd like the committee to look beyond Penfield Pavilion. "We have to have some form of protection for the beach area," she said. "Our area down there cannot have another big storm that washes through."

A bulkhead that was built on the beach side of the pavilion a few months before Superstorm Sandy was cited as a possible reason for the intense scouring of sand underneath the pavilion and the structure's partial collapse.

Ian Bass, a committee member, said tidal data from that storm would be useful in confirming whether that was the culprit.

Robert Bellitto Jr., the committee's vice chairman, toured the site as a member of the town's Board of Finance shortly after the October 2012 storm and said Thursday the scouring led to "massive craters" between the first floor and foundation. "It was dramatic," he said.

But Bill Sapone, the committee's secretary, said engineering reports that he read didn't address the bulkhead's potential role in damaging the pavilion. He said scouring under the pavilion was minimal during 2011's Tropical Storm Irene before the bulkhead was in place. "Then you have Sandy come in and now you've got a cavern carved out in the middle of the building," he said. "I'm really worried if we leave that there as it is, that's the wrong barrier we should have for elevation protection."

Earlier, Bradley said he had no idea how long the process to reopen the pavilion would take; the structure has be shuttered since Sandy. "This isn't going to be that easy because it's not like, `Let's expedite a brand-new building,' " he said. "There are going to be variables to every single process we look at."

Sapone said the committee has "to keep in the forefront this is a facility the people want to use ... We have to keep the public use of this facility in mind all the way through."

Andrew Graceffa, a committee member, said residents who want the pavilion work to be done well, cheap and fast should be aware that only two of those criteria are usually achievable.

The building committee also decided Thursday evening to ask town officials what's being done to secure and protect the pavilion, which Joseph Michelangelo, director of the town's Department of Public Works, said has no heat, running water or electricity.

Sapone noted that the building has a fence around it, but Bradley questioned whether the pavilion's existing alarm system should be energized. Bellitto said the pavilion has become an "attractive nuisance" and questioned whether the town could be liable if someone is hurt on the property.

Bass said town officials should check with its insurance company about what it wants done to secure and protect the pavilion.

"I understand from the first selectman's office that that's being done as we speak," Bradley said, adding that a request would be made to Tetreau or Michelangelo to identify what's being done to secure and protect the existing structure.

"That really should be part of our responsibility, to make sure no further damage is done to the building," Sapone said. "We want feedback on this before our next meeting."

Ken Camarro of Carroll Road, an audience member, said the pavilion is "a structural tinderbox and it has to be protected."

Bellitto said the committee and town officials shouldn't dismiss out-of-hand the possibility of seeking money from the architect or engineer who built the pavilion. He said he had read in a report that pilings were not driven down far enough into the beach.

"There very well might not be anything there," Bellitto said. But he said the committee at some point would ask town boards for money to renovate or rebuild the pavilion, and that Board of Finance members would ask committee members what the town was doing "in terms of going after the architect or engineer." "We've got to be prepared to answer it," Bellitto said.

Sapone said town officials, not the committee, should deal with that. "Issues with past construction are done strictly by the town," he said. "We need to know what went wrong." Bellitto said, "Then the town attorney can take it from there."

Gerald Lombardo, director of the town's Parks and Recreation Department, said Wiles Architects was the architect of record for the project and that town DPW employees did footings for the pavilion under the direction of the architect and engineers.

James Gallagher, who was chairman of the building committee that oversaw re-construction of the pavilion, said some people had unfairly blamed Wiles Architects for damage to the pavilion. He said Wiles designed the building "long before" the bulkhead was built. "Wiles is really suffering a black eye and no one understands," he said.

In related news, Michelangelo said the town is not under contract to any consultants regarding the pavilion and that the building committee is free to choose whoever they think is appropriate.

Sapone said documents and correspondence related to the effort to reopen Penfield Pavilion would be posted on the town's website. He said the committee also will publicize an e-mail address for residents to make comments or ask questions. That e-mail address is penfieldcommittee@town.fairfield.ct.us.

Sapone, though, said committee members shouldn't get into conversations via e-mail because business had to be conducted in a public meeting.

After about 90 minutes, the committee went into a closed-door meeting to discuss the "current status of storm damage insurance claim," which Eileen Kennelly, a former assistant town attorney, said was a legitimate exception to state Freedom of Information laws because it is a pending claim. Kennelly said she checked with the state FOI Commission last week to verify that.

The building committee decided to meet on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, except for November and December, at 6 p.m. in Sullivan-Independence Hall. The committee decided not to bring up new business after 8 p.m. and to allow public comment toward the end of each meeting, with a two-minute limit on each speaker.