STAMFORD – A green dot means the piling is safe to keep; a red dot means it’s breaking and has to be removed.
There’s no way to tell how many dots of which color are painted on the many pilings that support more than 200 boat slips at Cove Marina.
The total will be murky until a report from the engineer diver who inspected the pilings is complete.
One thing, however, is clear.
Boating out of Stamford’s well-used municipal marinas, in one of the busiest harbors in Connecticut, will be a mess in the spring.
Only two of Stamford’s marinas, Cove and Czescik, have been open since the third, Cummings, was wrecked by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Demand is high – nearly all of the 189 boat slips at Czescik were filled this summer, and 85 percent of the 212 slips at Cove, though the percentage may be low because some slips are too rotted to rent.
The problems at Cove peaked in August, when three decayed pilings fell, smashing two boats. No one was hurt but the risk remains because the pilings – beyond their lifespan at more than 30 years old – could keep falling.
So, when the 2024 season opens in April, it will be first come, first served for boaters looking to rent a slip at Cove Marina. The same will be true for Czescik Marina, which will take the overflow.
Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Murray said Thursday that, based on an initial report from the marine engineer, “we will open certain sections of docks at Cove Marina that are safe” when the next season begins.
The rest of the docks at Cove will be closed off or removed, Murray said. To accommodate some boats that will not get slips, the city will set aside space in the Cove parking lot, where owners may keep their boats on their trailers, he said.
Murray did not specify the number of docks that will be out of service in the spring, saying the engineer diver provided “some initial feedback” and the city is awaiting the final report.
Harbor officials have told CT Examiner that a third to half of the slips are not safe, either because the pilings are rotted or docks are coming apart.
Always on the brink
Other circumstances illustrate the tenuousness of the condition of Stamford’s marinas.
First, there’s the funding.
Murray said $4.8 million has been authorized for marina repairs but the money has yet to be bonded.
Most of the money will be used to dredge Cove Marina, a long-planned and badly needed project. Because dredging is permitted only between October and January, that work is to begin in October 2024, Murray said. The docks and pilings will be removed during dredging, he said.
There is a question about whether Stamford can issue bonds, because its state-mandated annual audit report, due Jan. 1, 2023, is still not filed. But Director of Administration Ben Barnes said Thursday that funding availability should not impede the project.
“We have the authority to advance cash from the General Fund to specific projects in order to fund critical work on authorized capital projects,” Barnes said.
Then there’s the issue of how all the boaters who can’t get slips, and instead store their boats in trailers in the Cove parking lot, will get them into the water. They need ramps.
The boat ramp at Cove opened just in time. The area was dredged nine months ago after years of being so heavily silted that it was barely usable. The ramp at nearby West Beach is an alternative, but it was in bad shape and had to be reconstructed. That work began in May and is supposed to be completed in November.
The city’s years of underfunding maintenance for municipal marinas is manifesting, too, at Czescik. Murray this week put in a request to the Planning Board to set aside $1 million in a future budget year to replace aging docks and pilings there.
Whether Cummings Marina is ever repaired remains an open question.
The situation has left little wiggle room.
The city’s Cinderella
In August city officials considered closing Cove Marina to protect public safety but there was nowhere else for the boats to dock. So they decided to let the season run out.
Now that’s happening.
Boats have to be removed from the marinas by Nov. 26 or owners face fines, and risk eligibility for lease renewal, having a lien placed against the vessel, or having it declared abandoned.
In Thursday’s unusually summer-like October weather, boaters at Cove Marina headed out onto Long Island Sound, smiling and waving from their decks, calling out that they had not heard about problems.
None appeared to know that they may not be able to dock at Cove when the 2024 season begins in April.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Frank Fumega, the state’s deputy harbor master for Stamford. “Municipal marinas are for the average person. They could not afford what the private marinas charge.”
Most folks have smaller boats, for which the city charges $400 to $750 a season. Private marinas charge at least twice that, Fumega said.
The state’s harbor master for Stamford, Yale Greenman, said he wonders whether the city will charge boaters to park their trailers in the Cove Marina lot.
“If you’re going to trailer your boat, why would you buy space to do it there? You can trailer it at your house,” Greenman said.
Stamford has a beautiful harbor that it keeps ignoring, he said. The channel leading to Cove Marina, for example, was allowed for years to get so clogged with silt that many boats could use it only during high tide. It finally was dredged last winter using $3 million from the state’s Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Greenman said. “None of the neighboring communities seem to have these issues. In Norwalk, Greenwich and Westport, the marinas are well-funded and in good shape.”
Damian Ortelli, chair of the volunteer Stamford Harbor Management Commission, said the group is working on the problems with city officials. The harbor is a jewel but treated like Cinderella, Ortelli has said.
“City marinas make boating accessible to all kinds of people. The beauty of city marinas is that more people can enjoy the water,” Ortelli said. “I hope we learn from this that we need to do regular inspections, like other marinas do. I mean, we just dredged the channel and it’s finally usable again, and now we’re not going to have anywhere for people to keep their boats. It’s a shame.”