Byram Park pool project gets go-ahead despite soil questions

p1-pool-7-31The effort to build a new municipal pool in Byram got a big boost last week, but concerns persist over potential soil issues at the site.

As expected, the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved municipal improvement (MI) status for the Byram Park Pool Master Plan at its July 24 meeting. The project, which is slated to be done through a public/private partnership between the town and the Junior League of Greenwich, is still years away from reality and a final site plan has not been submitted yet. But the granting of the MI, which is required for all projects on town-owned land, was a critical step because now it allows the project to go before the Planning and Zoning Commission to begin the town land use approval process. The Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) is expected to hear a funding request for the project as part of next year’s budget after approving money the past two years to develop the plan for the site.

Alan Monelli, the town’s superintendent of building construction and maintenance, said the pool would be built in accordance with new flood guidelines developed by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) post-Hurricane Sandy, placing it and other buildings in safer, more elevated areas.

The pool project itself enjoys support in town, with the Junior League poised to develop a capital campaign this year to raise private funds for it. However, concerns were expressed at the meeting about the potential condition of the soil at the site and whether or not this would lead to project delays and remediation costs like those found at Greenwich High School through the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project, where contaminated soil that had been there for decades was discovered.

No exact cause of the soil issues, which are being remediated at great cost to the town, has ever been developed but it is believed that the soil had been contaminated in the first place when it was used in 1969 for the original construction of GHS, which is built on swampland. Now, given the costs of the remediation, the concern is flaring up over future town capital projects.

Peter Quigley spoke up at the July 24 meeting, saying he wasn’t there to comment on the merits of the pool project but about soil testing in general in town for any capital project. Mr. Quigley is a member of the town’s Harbor Management Commission but was speaking only as a “concerned citizen.”

“We need to have proper soil testing before this project is moved ahead to its funding stage, so the proper soil has been tested not even to the Department of Environmental Protection Phase One and Phase Two standards,” Mr. Quigley said. “That’s just a standard that should be done on all town projects. We should go a step beyond and test, not just for standard stuff, but for any carcinogenic material like lead, metals, fly ash and levels of arsenic as well, which might not necessarily come under the state standards. Greenwich can lead here in cleaning up its sites for town municipal projects.”

Mr. Quigley said before any money was spent on the actual construction it was important to find out the condition of the site and whether it was better to have a pool built somewhere else in town. He was not alone in this concern, either, as Selectman Drew Marzullo also spoke up on the issue. Mr. Marzullo has been pushing the issue recently with regard to what the town was doing to ensure there were no further issues with soil like what happened with MISA and asked Mr. Monelli what was being done.

“Are we not testing in more advanced level because of what we could potentially find there, forcing us to have to remediate?” Mr. Marzullo asked. “Why aren’t we going beyond the protocols?”

Mr. Monelli said under Phase One there was a historical review of the site being tested, which is the only required action. If nothing is found in that review to indicate an issue, no sampling is required to be done. But Mr. Monelli said the town’s Department of Public Works already did “Phase One plus” on sites, which includes testing for hydrocarbons, arsenic, fly ash and other toxic chemicals typically seen around town to make sure the soil is clean.

Mr. Marzullo wasn’t satisfied with the answer but Mr. Monelli said it didn’t make sense to randomly test for things that there was no evidence might be there.

“Are you sampling for the things you think you’re going to find or are you sampling for moon dust that might have come down in an asteroid?” Mr. Monelli asked. “That’s why there are protocols set up by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. We follow those protocols. That’s what we’re bound to do, but DPW goes a step further with soil testing.”

But Mr. Marzullo said he was still not sure why the town simply didn’t go further than that to insure no major complications down the line.

“What I’m saying is that if we’re about to endeavor in a project that will cost anywhere from five to $10 million it’s in the town’s best interest to test before, and go a step further because at some point we’re going to find out anyway,” Mr. Marzullo said.

Mr. Quigley pressed the issue throughout the meeting, speaking up several times during the conversation. He said the town had the municipal responsibility to consider the entire town’s health and well-being as well as taxpayer costs and not just the advocacy of “special interests.” He didn’t mention specifically who he considered those “special interests” to be but advocates for projects like the pool and MISA have been in heavy attendance at town meetings to push for the projects, showing the broad range of public support they enjoy in town.

“Let’s face it, the town has had some problems, and who’s going to pay for those problems?” Mr. Quigley said. “It’s not the special interest groups that are concerned, but for the public as a whole and the municipality as a whole for public health and safety as well as for the taxpayer that’s going to bear this burden after you put through a funding program that’s all going to come together. And if you don’t think it’s political now, it’s getting very political and political means elections and doing the right thing for the community.”

First Selectman Peter Tesei countered by saying that Mr. Quigley was not taking into account the special nature of the high school’s property, given that it used to be swamp and had to be filled in, when taking such a broad look at all the other capital project sites. He also told Mr. Quigley that his assertions “minimized what was already being done for testing on town properties.”

“To cast the sense that every property the town owns may have some [toxic] materials, I think, gives the wrong impression,” Mr. Tesei said. “I don’t disagree with what your objective is. I happen to agree with it. But I think the way you’re presenting it gives the external audience the sense that all over town every property has something wrong with it.”

Mr. Quigley said he was not trying to give that impression but was just trying to be cautious. He said that the proposed pool site was downstream from the Holly Hill Transfer Station, which he said was “almost like ground zero” for potentially toxic material. That assertion was challenged by Mr. Monelli, who said that the property is in Byram Park not Byram Peach and is therefore elevated from the water. Mr. Monelli said prior to this being the municipal pool, the site was a private residence with the rock quarry that many have mentioned in the location’s history as actually being further west.

The Board of Selectmen does not have the power to place conditions on the MI as the BET does with capital allocations, ensuring that certain requirements be met before money is released. However, the board was able to enter its concerns into the record through a letter to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“We’re going to support this with the understanding, and the key word is understanding, that we have completion and acceptance of all environmental testing,” Mr. Tesei said. “We also need to reach a final agreement with our community partner, The Junior League. Their generous support, which is helping offset some of the costs, is predicated on getting the preliminary site plans so they have something tangible to go out and solicit support for that.”

Mr. Tesei acknowledged that in addition to the soil there are concerns about the costs and timing of the project, but said the role of the Board of Selectmen was only to consider the MI from a planning point of view. The project will not only need land use approvals, but financial approvals from the BET and the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) as well, which Mr. Tesei said would give ample opportunity for issues to be heard. Despite the concerns that were heard at the meeting, all three selectmen expressed support for the project, which is the only municipal pool in town.

“I think this is an exciting project,” Selectman David Theis said. “I like the design of the pool that accommodates both recreational swimmers and lap swimmers. The design is really innovative.”

Mr. Marzullo stressed that his questions about soil testing did not reflect on his own support for the project, which he said he is “very much in favor of.” He just wanted to know what was being done about future town capital projects.

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