South Portland councilors: Willard Beach stairs, ramp costly, but worth it

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Tuesday voted to apply for grant funding to partially offset the cost of replacing access points to Willard Beach from Deake Street, a project that’s expected to cost the city significantly more than what’s been budgeted.

The grant application requires the city to allocate $110,000 from its unassigned balance in addition to the $40,000 previously set aside for the project.

Preliminary cost estimates for the project are expected to come in somewhere between $375,000 and $600,000.

Last year, safety concerns were raised about the stairs to the beach, which lack a railing on one side and two steps at the bottom; the ramp, which after years of erosion hovers several feet off the ground, and a stone retaining wall in between that is leaning toward the beach.

After a series of public meetings and possible remediation plans, councilors voted in favor of a plan supported by six out of eight residents at a Nov. 29 neighborhood meeting.

The plan calls for a new stairway and ramp being built across and above where the current retaining wall fronts Deake Street. The stairs will be L-shaped, with a landing near the abutting McKee property line, followed by a right-angle turn toward the beach. 

Under the plan, proposed by Freeport-based Baker Design Consultants, the existing stairs and ramp would be removed, along with the rock retaining wall, which would be returned to natural ledge. A new retaining wall running parallel to the McKee property would be built to ensure the stability of the property and a stormwater drainage system would be installed to prevent erosion and the deposit of sediments and suspended solids onto the beach. 

With the council’s blessing, city officials will apply for Hazard Mitigation Funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

If awarded the grant, the city would be responsible for a 25 percent match. As it stands, the only local funds available for the project are the $40,000 initially set aside for the stairs, meaning the maximum cost for the project, including engineer work, could not exceed $160,000. 

If the estimates for the project are within the parameters expected, the city would be required to match between $93,750 and $150,000.

The extra $110,000 is needed now because the application requires the city to have the necessary funds committed to fulfill its potential match.

Morelli said this was a hard thing for him to recommend to the council, “given the massive capital needs in the city and the limited funds we expect to have for next year’s (Capital Improvement Plan).” He also noted FEMA’s funds are “limited and awarded on a competitive basis.”

The grant application deadline is Dec. 14 and Morelli said it could be months before the city finds out whether it will receiving funding. 

Although less-expensive construction options are available, including only repair of the stairs, councilors preferred the more resilient course of action. 

Mayor Claude Morgan said councilors realized they “couldn’t put the cat in the bag,” when they recently visited the site and saw the public safety risks that exist.

“Is it a high-priced item? Yes, it is. But it is a durable item,” Morgan said. “… This project is multi-dimensional and meets criteria, the first being public safety.”

Morelli said if the city does not receive FEMA funding, officials will look for other grant possibilities and the project will compete with other items for full funding in the fiscal year 2020 CIP.

“The stairs, ramp, retaining walls, and seawall will remain as is until such time as funding can be secured,” he added. 

Councilor Kate Lewis said the project is her “No. 1 concern” in terms of necessary capital improvements, given the ramp and retaining wall could “fail at any time.”

“I’m impatient to do this,” she said. “… I do see this as a time bomb.” 

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

South Portland city councilors on Dec. 4 supported a plan to replace the Deake Street stairway, ramp and retaining wall at Willard Beach.

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