October 17, 2017

Op-Ed: The Road to Disaster is Paved with Good Intentions — Thoughts on The Boathouse Issue

In 2013 the Old Lyme community was excited to learn that it had been granted a $478,000 Connecticut Small Town Economic Assistance Program (CT STEAP) grant to expand the Boathouse and improve Hains Park.  This grant was made possible by hard-working individuals involved with the District 18 rowing teams and the local Old Lyme Rowing Club (OLRA), which includes rowers from multiple towns in southeast Connecticut.

To oversee the project, the Old Lyme Board of Selectmen established the Boathouse/Hains Park Improvement Committee (BHPIC), with many of the same individuals involved in applying for the STEAP grant.   Initially the $478,000 CT STEAP grant was intended to cover all the costs of the project, so most of the community was happy to let them take the lead.  However, the BHPIC subsequently decided to demolish, rather than renovate, the existing Boathouse, while also removing/reducing other aspects of the project scope (removal of docks and improvement to the public restrooms, and multiple attempts to remove or reduce the size of the replacement basketball court).

These BHPIC decisions had several effects:  nearly doubling the project cost (from $478,000 to almost $900,000); reducing the benefit to the broader Old Lyme community; and potentially putting STEAP grant funds at risk by changing scope without obtaining written agreement from the state.  The BHPIC also proposed the Town of Old Lyme bear the full cost of the budget over-runs, raising the planned cost to Old Lyme taxpayers from $0 to $405,000.

Then, prior to providing the board of finance an opportunity to fully vet the project plans/costs or to prioritize this project versus other potential town expenditures, the Old Lyme Selectmen voted to rapidly push the project through to a Town Meeting to approve the use of $405,000 of the Town’s rainy-day fund to cover this large, unplanned capital expenditure.  The fact that the Town Meeting (Mon, Oct. 6) was scheduled less than one week from first public information session (Wed, Oct 1), and less than one full business day from the second informational session (Sat, Oct. 4) meant that adequate public review and input could not occur.

Prior to the Town Meeting, many community members (including those supportive of improving the boathouse) requested the Selectmen give the community more time for review/input, and to enable key questions/issues to be addressed.  However, the board of selectmen stated that the priority was to allow the BHPIC to begin construction in November, so the project would not impinge on the start of spring rowing season in March.  This rationale did not appear to align with the fiduciary responsibility of the Selectmen to put the best interests of the broader community first, nor did it appear justified since the existing Boathouse is functional (albeit not ideal), and that delaying the project until the following year would not have prevented the rowing teams/clubs from continuing all of their existing programs.   However, the Selectmen rushed forward with the Town vote anyway.

Following the Oct 6 town vote (100-73 in favor of appropriating $405,000 to cover the proposed project cost increase), many in the community asked that time be taken to address the many outstanding questions/issues/risks before going out to bid – after which it may be too late to address them without incurring additional costs/town liabilities.  Some of the issues included:

  • Lack of written agreement with the state on change in scope, to avoid risk of losing STEAP funds.
  • Lack of completed written agreements with District 18 on the transfer of ownership of the Boathouse to the Town of Old Lyme, and for future financial commitments to pay for insurance, operation and maintenance for the new Boathouse.  Without these in place before going to bid, the Town of Old Lyme takes on significant additional risk.
  • Significant code issues have been raised by both the Old Lyme Fire Marshal and Building Official.  Addressing these after the bidding process will result in expensive change orders.
  • Lack of plan reviews and safety assessments by District 18 to get buy-in and address potential issues with the configuration of the Boathouse (particularly bathrooms and locker rooms).  They are to be used by students and maintained by District 18, but do not align with safety guidelines for school construction design prepared by the US Dept. of Education and Dept. of Justice.
  • Last minute efforts to correct the size of the replacement basketball court, and lack of finalization (and broad community input) into a Hains Park Master Plan.  Ideally this should precede finalizing the Boathouse phase, to ensure that all community needs are met and related costs fully understood.
  • Rushing finalization of construction plans/documents, which will not leave adequate time for stakeholder review, and may result in errors that may also lead to costly change orders.

The fact that the Old Lyme Selectmen and BHPIC have initiated the construction bidding process without first adequately addressing these issues is very concerning in itself.  However, after release of the Old Lyme Public Notice Wed, Oct 22, 2014, there may be yet another serious issue:  lack of compliance with state requirements for the contract bidding process.  This must be addressed immediately to avoid potential loss of our CT STEAP grant funding.

Please!  It is time to stop rushing forward recklessly; we need take some time and work together to adequately address the many valid issues/questions raised.  We also need other community members/stakeholders to work with the BHPIC and rowing advocates.  This will be critical to ensuring that the project is most successful, that all of the community needs are met, and that town/state funds are not wasted or lost.

While I am sure everyone involved in the project has acted with good intentions, good intentions are not enough:  “The road to disaster is paved with good intentions.”

Let’s take a step back, and make this a truly inclusive Town project.  Let’s leverage our combined experience and allocated funds to deliver a project that is completed successfully and with the broadest possible community support.

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