South Portland wrestles with safety of Willard Beach stairs

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Access to Willard Beach from Deake Street is likely to be restricted while ideas for improvements are prepared for the City Council.

But only short-term corrections are likely, the city manager said, because more substantial work is considered too costly.

Concerns about an aging concrete ramp and stairs that access Willard Beach from Deake Street were first brought to the city’s attention by residents.

“It’s been a neighbor-initiated project,” said City Councilor Claude Morgan, who represents the district.

The current infrastructure, which is estimated to be about 40 years old, could be a safety hazard and a liability to the city. The property is assumed to be under the ownership of the city through a prescriptive easement, because the city has maintained the property for many years, the councilor said.

Any investment in repairing or rebuilding the infrastructure at the access point will be paid for by the city, Morgan said.

“The city can’t walk away from it,” he said, adding South Portland is morally and fiscally obligated to fix the stairs and ramp.

Beach erosion and a change in the contour of the landscape is a second problem at Willard Beach, but Morgan said both issues could be remediated if the design to fix the access point addresses both issues. Bringing in more sand is also an action that’s been discussed.

An engineer was hired by the city to assess the area and draft viable solutions, Morgan said, adding the stairway and ramps were determined to be out of compliance with local codes. When new stairs or ramps are built, they will be in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act with best practices and industry standards in mind, he said.

But in a recent email to abutting property owners, City Manager Scott Morelli said the estimate for a unified ramp and stairs is between $200,000 and $300,000, and funding is unlikely for the next two years.

Morelli said there seemed to be a consensus that replacing the stairs is the best option in the short term, with the stairs being rebuilt in a way to allow the footings to be used to support a ramp if a ramp/stair combination is pursued. The project could be completed in the spring, Morelli said in an email.

A rock wall at the site also presents a liability issue, and staff will test whether removing the ledge and establishing a natural ledge face is possible. Other recommendations include blocking the boat ramp with barriers to prevent boat access to the beach via the ramp.

“Although we know this will not be popular with some, the city’s liability is too great knowing the condition of the ramp and so we need to be sure we have restricted access until such a time as we have a plan to move forward,” Morelli said. “That will mean access will be restricted for at least next year.”

A City Council workshop will be held March 12 to provide an update on the recommendations. Afterwards, the council may be asked to create a committee, allocate funds to hire a consultant to update the plan, as well as award a bid to a contractor to complete the work.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106., or at

Stairs from Deake Street to Willard Beach will be repaired or replaced by South Portland, but not for several months.