FAIRFIELD – Officials announced at a Thursday meeting that residents would pay the price of stalled remediation progress on a longstanding federal violation through increased flood insurance costs, as the first selectwoman looked to Congress for aid.
In 2013, a previous town administration hired a property management company, Julian Enterprises, to manage and reduce the town’s large fill pile. But upon investigation in 2016, officials found that the pile grew to three times its original size and the company accepted contaminated material – which the town had used in the construction of almost 40 sites across Fairfield.
The affected locations, often known as “Julian fill” sites, included various sport fields, parks and the Penfield Pavilion – a newly-constructed, 27,500 square foot structure with restrooms, locker rooms and decking. In addition to contaminants like PCBs and asbestos below the building, Penfield Pavilion was also in violation of Federal Emergency Management Agency grade regulations because a previous administration disregarded federal orders to halt construction.
At a Thursday town hall meeting to discuss pavilion remediation, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and FEMA officials said that in addition to financing fill cleanup across town, residents could absorb a 10 percent hike in their flood insurance bills if the town fails to make progress on the pavilion by the end of March.
“I think it would be very, very important for the community to demonstrate progress forward in order for the agency to be able to [reconsider] rates now,” said Dean Savramis, FEMA’s Region I Mitigation Division Director.
Fairfield participates in the National Flood Insurance Program managed by FEMA, and residents in flood zone hazard areas currently receive the 10 percent discount because the town opted into the agency’s Community Rating System. But because the town is not in compliance with FEMA’s minimum standards, officials said they would begin notifying insurance companies of the increase on March 31, calling it the “point of no return.”
Kupchick said she was unaware of the insurance increases until two weeks ago when – during a call with Fairfield officials, state legislators and Congressman Jim Himes – FEMA officials notified her of the deadline. She told attendees that she pleaded with FEMA for an extension.
“We were right in the middle of budget season. Can we get some additional time? Because this is obviously a big deal to lose this,” Kupchick recalled. “And frankly, I wish I had known this earlier.”
FEMA officials said the agency initially made the town aware of potential consequences – including a retrograde in the Community Rating System – in 2018, but have held off as Fairfield was seemingly making progress in remediation.
“The discussions were such that it looked like construction was gonna begin in fall of 2022, and it was going to be an 18-month project, and the Penfield pavilion would be brought into full compliance by spring of 2024,” Savramis explained. “And subsequently, the progress that was being made in those discussions – it has stalled.”
Kupchick said she was hoping to bring a funding proposal to the numerous town bodies by Nov. 2022, but said some Fairfield officials seemed hesitant to approve a plan without additional information. She said the intent of the Thursday meeting was to inform the residents and elected officials, and move forward.
During Kupchik’s presentation, she said Fairfield was considering two remediation options – remove the fill below the building and adjust the structure’s elevation, or demolish the pavilion, remove the fill and rebuild basic community necessities. Both came with a multimillion dollar price tag.
“Nobody wants to be spending this money to fix something that shouldn’t [have] been built that way in the first place,” said Kupchick.
Only a year after the pavilion was constructed in 2011, the building was damaged in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA awarded the town $4.3 million to replace the pavilion, but the previous administration instead repaired it – without FEMA approval – for $7.3 million.
Two years later, FEMA deemed the project ineligible for reimbursement as it failed to comply with floodplain management regulations – the pavilion’s horizontal grade beams were constructed above the natural grade, and below the base flood elevation.
Kupchick told attendees that she wants to comply, and would prefer to keep the pavilion and adjust the elevation for a total estimated cost of $11.5 million, compared to demolishing the structure for about $8.5 million.
“If the community wants to knock down a building – by the way, that’s worth about $8 million – and have nothing, we’ll be in compliance real quick,” Kupchick said. “I don’t think that’s the right thing for our community.”
On the call with FEMA and legislators, Kupchick said she was willing to move forward with a proposal to repair the notice of violation and clean out the contaminated fill, but asked Himes if he could help the town secure an extension before flood insurance rates increased.
At the Thursday meeting, Himes’s District Director Jimmy Tickey told attendees that Himes had submitted several appeals to FEMA over the years in support of Fairfield, which were “denied at every turn.” He said Himes would continue to support the town in the extension, but questioned the office’s influence.
“The congressman will support an extension,” Tickey said. “But understand [that] we are not a regulatory agency or an oversight agency, but we will continue to be as helpful as we can be to the town.”
Kupchick said she believed the best course of action is to work with Fairfield’s congressional delegation and request that they negotiate with FEMA officials. Savramis said delegation, officials and residents could submit letters requesting reconsideration before the March deadline, but explained that there was no formal appeals process. He again urged Fairfield to make progress within the town bodies.
At the well-attended meeting, residents submitted their inquiries for Fairfield and FEMA officials and many were addressed during the Q&A session. Town officials explained the outstanding violations, reviewed the fill pile timeline and denied comparisons to the previous administration, promising compliance.
“This administration is not going to ignore the law or federal agencies,” said Town Attorney Jim Baldwin. “We’re going to comply with the law.”
Numerous former town employees currently face charges for their involvement in the fill pile scandal, including former interim Public Works Director Brian Carey, – a Class A misdemeanor charge for the illegal discharge of hazardous waste – Public Works Superintendent Scott Bartlett, – numerous Class B felonies for larceny in the first degree, as well a Class A misdemeanor for illegal discharge – and former Chief Financial Officer Robert Mayer – a Class B felony for conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree.
Outside contractors for the fill pile also face charges, including Julian Enterprises owner Jason Julian – a Class A misdemeanor for illegal discharge and Class B felonies for larceny in the first degree and conspiracy – and environmental site assessment contractor Robert Grabarek – a Class A misdemeanor for illegal discharge.
At the Thursday meeting, Fairfield officials said they hope to receive restitution from the proceedings in order to fund remediation. In the case of former Public Works Director Joe Michelangelo, the town said they are set to receive $500,000 as he pled guilty to the illegal disposal of asbestos and handling solid waste without a permit, and is currently awaiting disposition.
“The current plea deal calls for restitution by Mr. Joe Michaelangelo, and we would certainly expect the state’s attorney to prosecute the other defendants in a manner that would result in additional restitution, and probably for considerably more than what Mr. Joe Michelangelo has pled to,” Baldwin explained.
Kupchick told attendees that it was her goal to clean up the contaminated soil accepted by the former administration and move past the “dark chapter” of the town. She said she was available for calls and emails from residents, and said she was willing to put a remediation proposal on town agendas in an attempt to move forward.