Marina redesign, costs garner mixed reactions from boaters

FAIRFIELD — If you build it, they will come. And if you’re trying to rebuild or renovate it, they will come, too.

As the South Benson Marina nears the end of its lifecycle, town officials are taking the first steps of what could be a lengthy planning process toward resolving several flaws and accommodating boaters’ wishes.

“We’re not recommending (any particular options or plan) yet,” Parks and Recreation Commission Secretary Brian Nerreau said Tuesday, emphasizing that boaters come with an open mind regarding the different proposals.

The Parks and Recreation Marina Sub-Committee, to obtain input from boaters regarding marina deficiencies and potential renovations, hosted a town hall-like event at Fairfield Ludlowe High School on April 23.

Over 70 residents — the vast majority of them boat-owners — attended the event, bringing an array of perspectives about what should, or shouldn’t, be done to the marina.

Andy Clark, a small-boat owner, said the marina was fine as is.

“I’ve never had any trouble but that’s from my experience,” Clark said. “It needs to be dredged, but I’ve enjoyed (the marina) for the past nine years.”

A range of options were presented to the boaters, each with its own peculiarities and trade-offs, such as fewer available boat slips or reduced space, and cost estimates that ranged from $2.5 to $5.7 million.

As several boaters commented and questioned the research behind the presentations, a larger concern was brought up: How and who would pay for the upgrades or redesign?

“Without having some numbers, it’s a great plan, but is it justified by the cost?” said Doug Chavenello, a large-boat owner who has been vocal about marina flaws before. “I want to see some numbers.”

Other boaters raised similar questions regarding the costs and funding for any potential marina renovations.

Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Scott Walker said that would be a matter discussed with other town bodies, especially as the marina is a source of revenue for the town’s general fund.

“We need direction from the town bodies as to what they expect the marina to do financially. They do not agree with each other at this time,” Walker said.

A planning questionnaire was handed out at the meeting, where boaters opined on matters regarding marina fees; whether the structure should be renovated, rebuilt or reconstructed; and even if management of the marina should be “outsourced to a third party.”

The steps toward a possible renovation come after the town hired consultants who highlighted key deficiencies in the area.

Last year, the commission hired RACE Coastal Engineering, a Stratford-based waterfront consulting firm, to examine and review the marina’s condition.

RACE consultants, headed by Devin Santa and Matt Taverna, emphasized an aging infrastructure, inadequate docking methods and fairway widths, and noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Walker has previously said this is the first step of a long-term process, and that input from Tuesday’s meeting may lead to another draft of the marina redesign. For now, commissioners will review the written responses to develop possible options that accommodate boaters’ expectations.

“It was fantastic to see such a large turnout from the boating community,” Walker said on Wednesday.