2017-09-01 / Front Page

Beach work

Willard Beach access due for an overhaul
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Deake Street residents Rob Sellin, right, and Natalie West, with son Blair Sly and granddaughter Maya, both of California, check out the half-century old access ramp to Willard Beach, undermined by erosion that has left the concrete slab hovering two feet in the air. Repairs to the ramp, along with nearby stairs, a stone retaining wall, and rip rap erosion guards, will be the subject of a community meeting, to be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, at the community center on Nelson Road. (Duke Harrington photo) Deake Street residents Rob Sellin, right, and Natalie West, with son Blair Sly and granddaughter Maya, both of California, check out the half-century old access ramp to Willard Beach, undermined by erosion that has left the concrete slab hovering two feet in the air. Repairs to the ramp, along with nearby stairs, a stone retaining wall, and rip rap erosion guards, will be the subject of a community meeting, to be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, at the community center on Nelson Road. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Although there is no on-street parking allowed, one of the most popular access points to Willard Beach, is at the end of Deake Street – an area now due for an upgrade after decades of minimal maintenance.

Of concern is a concrete access ramp undermined by years of erosion that has left it hovering two feet in the air. But there’s also a set of steps, the bottom two of which have washed away in the last year, and a stone retaining wall that is leaning inward toward the beach and in danger of collapse. There is also the question of rip rap along the edge of the sand line, some of which beachgoers routinely climb over when they can’t reach the ramp and steps at high tide, causing them to walk instead through the back yards of private homes in order to get back to Deake Street.

Also of concern to area residents are stones at the base of the steps and wall, allegedly placed on the order of former City Manager James Gailey without approval from the Department of Environmental Protection. Intended to protect the steps and wall, the rocks have had the opposite effect, residents say.

A public meeting to unveil plans for reconstructive surgery of the beach access point will be the subject of a community meeting, to be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, at the community center on Nelson Road.

“As a longtime resident, I would hope design planners keep in mind that local people rely on that point of entry to the beach to launch many various types of non-engine-bearing watercraft, such as punts, canoes, kayaks and paddle boards,” said Deake Street resident Jeffrey Hight, during an interview Tuesday, Aug. 29. “Those residents should have a say in the future of the area.”

Hight has lived off and on in the area since 1960, and continuously since 1986. His grandfather used to moor a lobster boat in the cove at Willard Beach and made use of the shacks at the end of Fishermen’s Point, now protected as a historic site.

He and others say the ramp was built in 1983, not by the city, but by fishermen.

“They used to use it to drag their catch from the beach up to the street,” said another Deake Street resident, Rob Sellin.

City Manager Scott Morelli agrees the ramp was built in the mid-1960s, but despite the presence of a handrail, says it was created for a different purpose.

“Our parks department believes it was intended for water run-off from the street, as opposed to a ramp for beach access,” he said in an April email, responding to questions about the ramp the Sentry had forwarded from a reader. “One of our city engineers will be looking at it soon but it would appear the integrity is still intact.”

Sellin said the ramp does indeed collect stormwater runoff, and that it has contributed to the erosion beneath it.

“When it rains, all of the water gushes right through here and down the ramp, taking out anything it hits,” he said on Tuesday.

Erosion issues are exacerbated, Sellin said, because the city continues to use the end of Deake Street as a snow dump for winter plowing. In addition to excess snow melt in that corner of the beach, that also introduces road salt and other associated car-borne chemicals directly into Casco Bay.

Morelli, however, points to Mother Nature as the culprit that has carted away all the sand and dirt that once supported the base of the ramp.

“The space under the foot of the ramp was caused by years of erosion and washout from high tides,” he said in the April interview. “Trying to fill the underneath with material would just result in the same washout issues. The ramp is also built into a slate wall and natural embankment. If we were to demo the ramp it could cause the slate wall and banking to lose its integrity and start to crumble, causing more damage to the area. The stairs themselves also need repair and we will likely be doing so with granite along the edges to prevent this from becoming a continuous fix in the years to come.

“Once we get more info from our engineer we will need to contact both a mason and DEP in order to proceed,” Morelli said.

Since then, work has proceeded. In May, city staff met with area residents and an official from the DEP to go over issues.

“The city told the residents that by summer’s end, the city’s engineer would come up with some options for these items and obtain their feedback prior to bringing this item to city council,” Morelli said.

On Tuesday, Morelli and other staffers met with the city’s contracted engineering firm, Sebego Technics, to go over options it had come up with.

“Sebago got our feedback and will now be working on the handouts for the (Sept. 7) meeting, which will include a summary of options, drawings, photos and costs,” Morelli said. “Those likely won’t be ready until just before the meeting so unfortunately I do not have anything to provide (in advance).”

“The ramp in its current condition is dangerous,” Deake Street resident Natalie West said. “In particular, it is a hazard for children who are drawn to look under and explore. That should be taken care of right away, to prevent children or others from going under any part of it.

Beyond that, West says there are four main points the city should consider in In a photo taken earlier this summer, Matt Sly of Boston, attempts to guide a paddle board down the steps leading off the end of Deake Street to Willard Beach in South Portland, a tough task given that the bottom two steps have been washed away. (Courtesy photo) evaluating its overhaul plan.

“We think the city needs to consider the importance of maintaining and expanding public access to the shore, the safety for all users including those in wheelchairs, the need for an overall plan for the whole corner that will be a good project for the next 60 to 70 years, and reviewing and implementing any project as part of the city’s capital planning process, to make sure that decisions are made in a thoughtful and comprehensive way,” West said.

“We’ve had enough of ad hoc decision making in South Portland,” West added, noting that “those rocks the city dumped without permit around the bottom of the stairs are also a hazard.”

It’s hard to accuse Morelli himself of operating in an ad hoc manner. He’s only been on the job since March and first learned about problems with the ramp during his first month in office. While long-term planning and financial management is the ideal, he has been working to resolve the issue in the most expeditious manner possible, ticking off items in order of priority, he said.

“There is really only one option for repairing the stairs according to Sebago, so we are planning to move ahead with that, although we will discuss it at the public meeting next week,” Morelli said. “I understand it will include a new rail, which was one of the things with which some residents had concerns.

“Sebago will then talk about a couple of options for the stone wall, rip rap, and boat ramp, along with pricing,” Morelli said. “The city has not set aside funds for this project as it came up outside of the normal budget process. So the option that council ends up selecting will determine when we can perform the work. If the cost is low enough, we may be able to cobble together funds from within the existing budget or a reserve account and do some or all of it this winter, which is when I am told would be the ideal time to do this work.”

“If the option chosen results in a larger expense, then we would likely need to include it as a request during the fiscal year 2019 budget process, where it would compete with other proposed expenses, and would push back the start date,” Morelli said. “Between now and the council workshop on this matter – which won’t be until October at the earliest – I will be working with the parks department and our finance director to identify funding sources in the current year budget in the event the costs are reasonable.”

Return to top