Pear Tree project on hold, approval process moves forward
The proposed Pear Tree Point Beach Building renovation project will be going on hold for one year, according to an announcement made by committee chairman Mike Sgroe.
The two-hour-long May 6 meeting was the final meeting before the committee went into the “pause” phase.
According to Sgroe, Darien First Selectmen Jayme Stevenson had asked the committee to put the project on hold, recognizing the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic’s effect on the economy.
The members of the committee had accepted Stevenson’s recommendation.
Proceeding with DEEP approvals
The committee had previously voted to authorize the Pear Tree Point Beach design team to proceed with the approvals to DEEP. So, despite agreeing to put the project on hold, the committee decided to go forward with the approval process.
“We are looking at a couple of weeks before we would have that application prepared to be submitted to DEEP,” said Project architect Dan Biggs, who participated in the meeting.
DEEP had previously met with the committee “and indicated that they were inclined to approve our plan of raising the parking lot,” Sgroe said. “It then made sense for us to proceed as a committee.”
Biggs said DEEP is in favor of the committee’s approach to the parking lot. At the May 6 meeting, he gave an in-depth presentation that included a site analysis summary of the area. In the presentation, Biggs said the area “can benefit” with improvements that would prevent the flooding.
He said the Darien Boat Club structure is non- compliant with current regulations.
In addition, he said the plans for the project include “having the boat ramp improved and replaced,” he said.
Committee member Tom Bell, who is the town’s harbor master, said the way the current boat ramp was designed “doesn’t work.”
“They didn’t dredge that particular area of the harbor when they put this in,” Bell said. “You really can’t launch boats very efficiently.”
The dredge in question is a maintenance dredge located at the end of the boat ramp.
“It’s just maintaining and fixing the depth of the water so boats of sizes that are using the ramp can use the ramp,” he said.
The entire harbor would not need to be dredged.
Proposed beach elevation
According to Biggs, as the parking lot would be raised, “our control for our grades are the elevation of Pear Tree Point Road. We can’t really be higher than that, more or less. The grades of the beach are our driving factor.”
He continued: “As we raise the parking lot, it would then give us a greater difference between the bottom of the boat ramp that exists to date, and the new top of boat ramp. It enables those contours to be closer together.”
If the parking lot were not raised, there may be a shorter boat ramp, according to Biggs.
DEEP will be looking in detail at the preliminary design level.
When Bell asked Biggs about the potential cost for raising the parking lot, Sgroe stepped into the conversation and would not let Biggs immediately respond.
“I’m not at all comfortable at this stage presenting any numbers, without having those numbers accompanied by the equivalent of the cost per household, per year equivalent,” Sgroe said. “Putting a number out there that’s just an abstract number, I think is not productive, not helpful. I feel it’s an incomplete picture of the cost to the community.”
Sgroe said that until there is a cost per household, he would “rather not talk about numbers.”
“When we do have a number, my ask to the Board of Finance is that they work up, based upon whatever we have, what the equivalent cost per household per year will be, so folks will actually understand what the price tag is that they would be asked to incur as a function of any improvements we’re making,” he said.
Due to the pandemic conditions, Biggs commented that bidding for projects has been significantly lower.
“Due to the market changes that are projected to occur, the market is so fluid right now,” he added. “It’s favorable for clients and municipalities in these conditions.”
During public comment, a letter was read from Darien resident H.P. Boyle, who had written many letters to the committee in the past, expressing his objection to the project.
In his letter, he wrote that the project is “fiscally irresponsible and contrary to the will of the town residents. Spending over 2.5 million dollars for a building with commercial kitchen designed to generate rental income is inconsistent with the values of the majority of Darien,” he wrote.
He referred to several surveys and petitions that were taken in town.
Boyle expressed his objection on a number of other renovation project issues as well, including the proposed commercial kitchen, raising the parking lot and proceeding with the development without a traffic study that incorporates the access route to the park.
Committee member Martha Banks also expressed her concern with moving ahead at this point.
“It’s premature to go for a COP [Certificate of Proposal] at this point, given that the committee is paused for a year. There’s no ballpark estimate even of what raising the parking lot will cost.”
Banks referred to a list of Stevenson’s concerns about the project from a November 2019 meeting, where Stevenson said the committee should revisit some of the areas in the initial charge.
Banks further said she’s worried about going to DEEP and getting approval on a COP.
“Then we get ourselves potentially into a timing bind and we’re going to DEEP with a project that’s not really complete yet,” she said.
In his response, Sgroe said the committee all voted in March unanimously to authorize the design team to go to DEEP.
“I don’t know of anything that should stand to change that vote,” he said.
He additionally said Stevenson had said to go forward and secure the COP, if that’s doable.
“We can’t know what it costs for doing any work on the parking lot possibly could be until we know what we’ll be approved for,” Sgroe said. “We could potentially have a COP that’s valid for up to three years, at least.”
Several other Board members agreed with him.
Biggs said DEEP has a few months to give approval of the document, but since it’s a pandemic, this could take longer.
“If the COP were to be approved and issued, then you have two years to implement those improvements,” Biggs said. “In a pre-pandemic era, you would have an additional one year of extension possible after that. Knowing that circumstances aren’t the same in a pre-pandemic era, this would be a discussion if they ran into that challenge.”
He said if committee members show that they’re making progress on the project, and that one year extension expires, “they’re not usually going to turn you down. They’re going to accept that you’re going to finish what you proposed and agreed to.”