Fairfield First Selectman Throws Support Behind Penfield Pavilion Project, OKs Additional $1.4M

A construction zone at Penfield Pavilion in Fairfield (CT Examiner).

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FAIRFIELD — First Selectman Bill Gerber backed the ongoing plan to remediate and maintain Penfield Pavilion on Wednesday, co-signing another $1.4 million in funding for the project to the dismay of several neighbors.

For more than a decade, Fairfield officials and residents have debated the design, construction and necessity of the 27,500-square-foot pavilion, which was rebuilt without approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for $7.3 million after Hurricane Sandy. After receiving the results of a long-awaited study on Wednesday, Gerber stifled previous doubt and supported a $13,029,950 plan to keep it.

“I’m quite optimistic now, whereas I wasn’t before,” Gerber said at the Board of Selectmen meeting. “That choice was weighing very heavily upon me.”

The pavilion has earned the town numerous notices of violation — one from FEMA as it breaches floodplain management regulations, and another from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection due to contaminated fill beneath the structure related to a fill pile scandal. To avoid looming increases in flood insurance costs, three town bodies voted in March to remove the contamination, lower the grade and keep the structure under the leadership of former Republican Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick, as opposed to knocking it down.

But last month, Gerber questioned that decision. While he understood that Fairfield needed to address the outstanding violations, he said he wondered if lowering the elevation of the structure from the current 11 feet to 8 feet as required by FEMA could increase the risk of flooding for the surrounding neighbors.

His comments sparked a debate among the board members. Kupchick, who now serves as a member of the board, argued that Gerber does not have the authority to make that decision without approval from other town bodies. But this week, Gerber backed the initial plan to keep the pavilion and vouched for an additional $1,429,950 to fund it after reviewing the results of a new flood resiliency study.

A presentation by RACE Coastal Engineering, LLC, the firm contracted by the town to complete the $100,000 study in March, concluded that no matter the plan for the pavilion, Penfield Beach is likely to flood during large and small storms. 

Devin Santa, president of the firm, acknowledged on Wednesday that lowering the grade of the beach by 3 feet to comply with FEMA would likely worsen flood resiliency. But the town could likely raise the elevation again, he said, after completing the planned construction work to the pavilion.

“In my experience, I don’t know the auspices that FEMA would have to stop you — after you clear that violation — through your own zoning regulations and Coastal Management Act of building that back to elevation 11,” Santa said.

Ever since Gerber defeated Kupchick for the first selectman seat by just 37 votes in November, the two have largely been at odds on key town issues like the pavilion, the commission appointment process and town newsletters during board meetings. After Santa’s presentation, however, all board members agreed the pavilion should stay and that Fairfield should consider further flood resiliency efforts moving forward.

“We should move through this [notice of violation], get it out of the way, and start talking about how we can fortify our beach and make it more resilient,” Kupchick said.

The board also unanimously voted for the additional $1.4 million appropriation, which Gerber said would fund higher-than-anticipated construction bids. To date, the project cost has increased by more than 11 percent compared to the original $11.6 million estimate.

While the three members were in agreement on the plan, some meeting attendees continued to question whether the town should keep the pavilion.

‘It’s getting ridiculous’

Ian Bass, a member of the former Penfield Building Committee, urged the new board not to repeat the mistakes of past officials.

When the town was debating whether to rebuild the pavilion after it was destroyed 10 years ago, Bass said most residents preferred a smaller, less expensive structure. The plan that the town instead chose, he said, sparked the violations and threat of increased flood insurance costs from FEMA. 

If the current board plans to maintain the large pavilion and again raise the beach elevation back to 11 feet, Bass urged officials to get approval from all of the relevant federal and state agencies before doing so.

“Two sayings that I would like to throw out for this board and for the public. … Number one: Does it make sense to throw good money after bad? And number two: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” Bass said.

Penfield neighbor Alyssa Israel agreed with Bass, calling the longstanding pavilion debate “ridiculous.”

In addition to questioning the need to lower the pavilion’s elevation, Israel pushed back on the increasing cost to residents. 

“I feel that this is way too huge of an expenditure, and I felt this way since the second building committee that Ian served on,” she said. “It’s getting ridiculous. It has been for the past eight years.”

All board members acknowledged the attendees’ frustrations, but Vitale reasoned that Fairfield needs to begin construction in order to avoid flood insurance increases for residents. Once the project is complete, she said, the board can begin implementing flood prevention measures.

Kupchick added that the pavilion has consumed much of the public discourse for years, and said Fairfield needs to address the violations and move forward.

“We’ve been talking about Penfield in this town for like 20 years,” Kupchick said. “I mean, we have so many other things to talk about.”