STAMFORD – In the last two weeks, three dock pilings broke and fell in the city’s Cove Marina, officials said.
Two of the heavy wood pilings damaged boats, most recently on Tuesday. No injuries were reported.
They are the latest incidents resulting from years of underfunding maintenance budgets for municipal marinas in Stamford, one of the busiest harbors in Connecticut.
Kevin Murray, the city’s parks and facilities manager, said aging pilings are rotting below the water line. It’s not clear why the three broke one after the other, Murray said Wednesday.
“They are the original pilings in the marina. I’m not sure of their age, but they are over their lifespan,” Murray said. “When they start to fail like this, it indicates more will fail until we upgrade. It’s a big concern.”
One of the pilings fell on a boat’s T-top, which covers the person standing at the helm, said Damian Ortelli, chair of the Stamford Harbor Management Commission. Another piling hit the back of a motorboat.
“The boats at Cove Marina are smaller, under 22 feet, I believe, and the pilings are top-heavy like telephone poles,” Ortelli said Wednesday. “These repairs are not full replacements, but both the boats will certainly need work. Fiberglas doesn’t like being crushed.”
Before Tuesday’s meeting of the Harbor Management Commission, one of the members asked Marina Supervisor Frank Baldassare if Cove Marina has been assessed and determined safe to remain open, Ortelli said.
“The answer was, ‘Yes. For now,’” Ortelli said. “The pilings are starting to rot, so I hope they don’t continue to break. Three seems like a pattern. It certainly is another thing that has to be watched.”
Stamford Harbor Master Yale Greenman said the same during the meeting. Harbor masters, by state law, are appointed by the governor and work under the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to supervise Connecticut’s harbors and navigable waterways.
“We have to do something about fixing these marinas,” Greenman said. “They’re held together with duct tape and rubber bands.”
It’s been true for some time.
In 2018, Greenman’s predecessor, former Stamford Harbor Master Eric Knott, laid out the condition of the city’s marinas for the Board of Representatives.
Knott, a marine accident investigator and expert in risk assessment, described docks with rotten, warped planks; loose cleats used for tying boats; deteriorating dock flotation supports; and other conditions that, if not repaired, pose high risks.
Murray and Ortelli said funding marina repairs was not a priority during the eight-year administration of former Mayor David Martin, but Mayor Caroline Simmons’ administration has been more helpful.
Using city capital funding, grants from the state’s Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program, and other sources, dredging over the winter cleared a choke point in the harbor channel leading to Cove Marina. Silt was so built up that many boats could come and go only during high tide.
Dredging is underway to allow reopening of the boat ramp at West Beach. Ortelli said that work should be finished by the spring.
Cove Marina is in serious need of its own dredging. A plan is in place, but not all the funding, Murray said.
“I’m not sure of the timeline for that,” he said.
To do the repairs, substantial resources are needed to overcome the years of shortfall.
The marina supervisor, Baldassare, for example, “has only one person helping him,” Murray said. “They have been replacing decking on the docks, working in the worst areas.”
The city has three public marinas — Cove, Czescik and Cummings. But Cummings Marina has been closed since 2012, when Superstorm Sandy nearly destroyed it. The city has yet to begin fixing it.
Czescik Marina needs dock repair, and Cove Marina has another problem besides dredging, dock repair, and piling replacement, Murray said.
“The sea wall around the marina is eroding, and the utility poles that provide lighting for the marina and the parking lot are on that land along the shore,” Murray said. “The erosion of the sea wall is putting the light poles in jeopardy.”
The marinas merit more attention, given the number of people and the amount of business the harbor draws, Ortelli said.
“Stamford is the third-busiest harbor in the state, based on the number of trips, commercial and recreational,” Ortelli said. “The marinas have been a money maker for the city, but funds that were supposed to go to the marinas were getting put in the general fund instead. The harbor continues to be the Cinderella of Stamford’s resources.”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, whose District 8 includes Cove Marina, said city leaders have a history of keeping the marinas low on the priority list.
“For a long time, city administrations have purposely decided to use city resources in other areas, instead of our marinas,” Sherwood said. “Resources should be directed there rather than some of the other areas we invest in. We tend to invest in projects that increase property values around development.”
One of those projects, she said, is Mill River Park, which the city began building downtown 20 years ago with help from a collaborative that oversees construction and operation, and raises private funding.
“It’s a beautiful park with an ice rink and a merry-go-round in the middle of downtown. Developers can put up a luxury apartment building next to it and, instead of getting $3,500 a month in rent, they get $5,000,” Sherwood said. “The apartments would not be worth what they are worth unless taxpayers invested millions of dollars into making the park what it is. The consequence of that is that other parks and public spaces get left behind.”
The city should be investing more in the harbor, Sherwood said.
“Stamford has a history of being one of the most active marinas between New York and Boston,” she said. “But we are ignoring it. That can’t be the plan.”