2018-08-31 / Front Page

Residents complain of slow fix at Willard

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Max Bean, 10, of South Portland, digs Friday, Aug. 25, at the side of a washout hole in the middle section of Willard Beach. Although tidal action since an Aug. 22 weather event, allegedly caused by a broken storm water drain pipe, had partly re-filled the hole, it remained about three feet deep. Residents have asked the city for help, citing fear that a smaller child could get boring by a similar hole in the future, or that someone walking the beach at night could get hurt from falling in. (Duke Harrington photo) Max Bean, 10, of South Portland, digs Friday, Aug. 25, at the side of a washout hole in the middle section of Willard Beach. Although tidal action since an Aug. 22 weather event, allegedly caused by a broken storm water drain pipe, had partly re-filled the hole, it remained about three feet deep. Residents have asked the city for help, citing fear that a smaller child could get boring by a similar hole in the future, or that someone walking the beach at night could get hurt from falling in. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Twice in the last two months, large sinkholes have been created by washouts on Willard Beach, and while the city says it will begin looking into a fix this winter, residents say that could be too late to prevent serious injury at the popular location.

In video captured June 26 and sent to city councilors by Willard Street resident John Murphy, water can be seen bubbling up from out of the ground, washing sand into the ocean. The most likely cause, he theorized, is a broken storm-water drain pipe that runs off of Willard Street, under the beach, and empties into the bay near Fisherman’s Point.

A similar washout event happened Aug. 22, creating a large canal that ran to the ocean. Two days later, the chasm was marked by the city at its deepest end using a single orange cone and a piece of string wound around three thin sticks.

“That’s really not adequate,” said Mary Geiggey, a 20-year resident of Willard Street. “I’ve seen that hole get as much as six-feet deep. That’s scary. I always think someone will take care of it, but there doesn’t seem to be an understanding of how dangerous that can be.”

Geiggey and others worry that a young child playing in the hole at any point before tidal action fills it back in, could end up buried in the sand, or that someone walking along the beach at night could fall in and get hurt.

About half a dozen residents have cited concerns, with many also lamenting continued beach erosion.

“Yeah, the tide fills back in 80 percent, but that’s still 20 percent gone forever,” Murphy said. “If you look, you can actually see a big dip in the beach where these washouts have occurred. It’s destroying the beach.”

In an Aug. 24 email, City Manager Scott Morelli said there are plans in place for a fix, but otherwise deferred to Brad Weeks, engineering manager of the city’s water resource protection department. Weeks responded to a second request for comment with a brief email statement Aug. 28 that did not confirm a broken drainpipe. He did not respond to follow-up questions and could not be reached by phone.

“The engineering division will begin this stormwater project this winter,” Weeks wrote. “We will begin by assessing the existing infrastructure and drainage area. That will be followed by developing a calibrated hydraulic model to determine the flow conditions at different rainfall events. Based on the flow condition data, we will then be able to determine what the next steps are. This process alone will take several months to complete.”

Department Director Patrick Cloutier did not return messages requesting comment.

“They say, yes, we’ve got to fix this, but first we have to do a study,” said Dennis Sisti of Fisherman’s Lane. “And then once that study is done, we’ll have to try and find some money to do any actual work. Do you think the storm are going to wait until that happens?”

As a 40-year resident of the beach area, Sisti carries a long institutional memory. The problem, he said, dates to 1976, when management of the beach was transferred from public works, which once routinely raked and graded the beach, to the parks department, which he said has largely ignored the site.

“I’d like the city to tell me what they have done of any significance since then,” he said. “And I don’t mean paying for the lifeguards, to changing out the trash cans, I mean actual management and the maintenance of the beach.”

The dunes above where the washouts occur, from there to Southern Maine Community College, did not exist before 1976. They’ve grown since then to fully bury at least two public benches.

“Willard Beach becomes important to the city on Memorial Day, and then they do the least amount that they can do until Labor Day,” Sisti said. “And then, when Labor Day comes, there’s a big sigh of relief around city hall as they say, wow, we’ve made it through another year at Willard Beach, we don’t have to worry about them until next Memorial Day.”

“The problem is that there is no leadership, so nothing gets done,” Geiggey said.

Parallel to the washout worry is continued concern over the beach access point at the end of Deake Street. There, sand has washed away leaving a concrete access ramp hanging in space, about three feet off the ground. A bottom section of a nearby set of steps also has washed away, while a 15-foot-tall stone retaining wall is leaning inward toward the beach.

Concern over how long it will take to end the washouts is mirrored by those who note how long it’s been since those Deake Street issues were raised, at the start of Morelli’s tenure more than a year ago.

Morelli said that repair is on hold awaiting funding.

“Right now we are working on submitting our application to FEMA for storm disaster funding, which, if approved, would cover the costs to repair the stairs and the ramp,” he said. “Since fixing both ‘as is’ would not meet current code, FEMA allows us to also show them what the cost is to bring the items up to current code.

“If approved for funding, we then anticipate having a neighborhood meeting to see if we can finalize a design for the site that works for the neighbors and the city,” Morelli said. “I think this is possible and so the final step would be getting such a project in our queue of capital projects so the work can get done.”

Kevin Adams, director of city’s parks, recreation and waterfront department, acknowledged Tuesday that while the city’s water resource department is taking point on the washout issue, the beach otherwise falls under his purview.

Adams agreed no beachcombing is done these days, that and other issues “predate me by a long time.”

Having looked into the issue since he arrived on scene, Adams said, there is conflicting information over what South Portland can and cannot do without express permission from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“Regarding the dunes, we’ve researched it and come up with two completely different answers on how to deal with that – one that raking is helpful to the beach and one that it’s not and we have to leave it as is at this point.”

Adams said plans are in place to form an ad-hoc volunteer committee to create a master plan for Willard Beach. A request to do that will go to the city council sometime this fall, after word on FEMA funding for Deake Street access comes in.

“Our plan is to come up with long-term solutions for the beach morphology, and the adequacy of our existing facilities,” Adams said. “For that we will have to get experts in from DEP and other experts to find out the right way to do these things.”

Adams said it will take a year to complete that plan, after which gears will shift to finding ways to fund any identified projects.

“We certainly don’t want to lose this beach,” Adams said. “It’s a gem of the city and we have people come from all over to visit it. So, we want to put it out there as the best representation of the city of South Portland. But we want to do it the right way and do one step at a time, with a master plan.”

For his part, Sisti said the city should go ahead and effect a fix, particularly for the washout issue, and then ask for DEP forgiveness later.

“The fine DEP might charge will be about what it will cost to do any study,” he said. “So, go ahead and do it. Do something to protect the public. Don’t just let a dangerous condition continue to exist.”

“To wait for a study, and then grant funding, it could take two more years for anything to be done,” Murphy said. “Does that seem OK to anybody? This has already been allowed to go on for way too long. The city always seems to find a way to pay for this want, or that want, but here we have an actually disaster in the making – whether you look at it from the environmental side, or, God forbid, a dead child – and nobody seems to have any sense of urgency about that.”

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