By Patrick Barnard
Years after a plan was first presented to have the structure removed, the old
Darien Nature Center building at Cherry Lawn Park was demolished this week,
paving the way for future changes to the park.
But before the two-story structure was torn down, demolition crews from Trumbull-based Standard Demolition Services showed up early this past Monday morning and ripped up the old tennis court that was in front of the building — much to the chagrin of RTM member Flora Smith and other town officials, as well as residents who use the park.
Smith, who has been outspoken when it comes to issues relating to Cherry Lawn, said in an interview Monday that she was “appalled” when she saw a backhoe ripping up the tennis court. She said it was her understanding that the tennis court — which has been out of use for the past three years due to disrepair — was to be left intact, so it could be repaired sometime after the demolition project was completed.
“Now, there’s nothing there but a hole in the ground,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t believe they did this.”
Smith said she views the removal of the tennis court as a “mishandling of town funds,” because now, she said, instead of needing repairs, the entire tennis court will need to be replaced at a cost to taxpayers of about $45,000.
She claims the tennis court could probably have been repaired for much less than that — but it’s all hindsight now that it has been ripped up.
“The RTM was lied to in order to get this appropriation through,” Smith said on Tuesday. Residents and RTM members were lied to for one year concerning the demolition project in the park.”
Smith said what concerns her most is the lack of accountability for the action.
“The most important issue facing the town right now concerns accountability in capital appropriations requests,” she added. “I think the RTM should investigate this matter ... “
Smith said when the project to demolish the building was presented to the RTM (for a second time) in June 2003 (following a series of problems regarding the bids for the project), members of the Parks & Recreation Department assured both her and the RTM that the single tennis court located in front of the building (one of six, total, in the park) would remain intact during demolition, so that it could be repaired at a later date.
Minutes from the meeting show that Smith made a motion to amend the RTM’s resolution to fund the demolition project to include a clause that the tennis court would be preserved. Her motion was seconded — but for some reason the RTM never voted on the motion on the floor.
During that same meeting, Millie Miceli, chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission, stated that her commission hadn’t made any decision to remove the tennis court at that time — and that it would be looked at after the building had been torn down.
“Millie Miceli said that the commission has not voted on anything regarding the tennis court at this time,” the minutes compiled by Town Clerk Donna Racjewski state. “When this project [building demolition] is over, the commission will look at the tennis court.”
Smith said in her opinion, members of the RTM were misled when Parks & Rec presented the plan in June 2003 because it was not made clear, at the time it was presented, that the demolition of the tennis court was going to be included in the project.
In the minutes, however, Sue Swiatek, director of Parks & Recreation, said the demolition of the tennis court could be included in the project as an “add alternate” — meaning that the town administration could request the demolition of the tennis court as part of the same contract at anytime, and as part of the same contract price, if it so desired.
“Ms. Swiatek said in the bid process, they thought they could put in an add alternate (removal of the surface of the tennis court) which needs to be done to resurface the court,” the minutes state. “That is what ‘demolish court’ means.”
Smith said the add alternate was, in fact, built into the contract for demolition right from the beginning. She said her main beef lies in the fact that someone from Town Hall authorized the removal of the tennis court without notifying the appropriate town board and commissions (including the RTM). Furthermore, she said the contractor was told late last week by someone at Town Hall to go ahead and remove the tennis court on Monday. She pointed out that this action was taken without any specific public vote on the removal of the tennis court (nor has there been any discussion on how much it will cost to replace the tennis court — and how that will be funded).
Members of the Park & Recreation Commission and the town administration, however, say there was no planned deception on the part of Parks & Rec to remove the tennis court without due process.
Parks & Recreation Commission Chairman Millie Miceli said in an interview Tuesday that the tennis court had been slated to be removed several years ago, due to its poor condition. She emphasized that the tennis court had not been used for the past three years — and that the sub-structure under the surface of the court had been damaged, making it costly to repair.
“That tennis court had been off-line for at least two years due to unsafe conditions,” she said pointing out that some tree roots had grown under the court and done damage to it in recent years. “In the condition it was in ... it was considered a liability ...”
Miceli said when a revised Master Plan for Cherry Lawn Park was presented several years ago, it indicated that the court should be removed, along with the building tear down.
“Our contractor said it needed to be replaced,” she said.
Miceli said the Parks & Recreation Commission listened to Smith when she said the court could be repaired for perhaps under $10,000 — however, Miceli said when the commission requested a written estimate from Smith (from a contractor who does tennis court repair), “we never received that information.”
“She said she knew a contractor who could do it,” Miceli said. “But she never got anything to us ...”
The reason the contractor ripped up the tennis court is because, as stated in the contract with the town, he needed the tennis court area to stage equipment and sort the materials which were removed from the building. Miceli said Parks & Rec considered using the parking lot at Cherry Lawn for staging, but decided not to, due to the adverse impact on the park (i.e. there would be much less room to park cars).
“Being that they knew that the tennis court was no good, we decided to take it out now, along with the building demolition,” she said, adding that this is less expensive than removing (or resufacing) the court at a later time.
Miceli said the Parks & Recreation Commission may decide to request funds to replace the tennis court in the next budget year — and, “it could go right back where it was — or we might decide to move it to another location in town.”
“The bottom line is, it needed to be replaced,” she said. “And it was more economical to do it now ...”
Park & Recreation Commission member Jane Branigan said Tuesday that she “was one of the ones who wanted to keep the tennis court.”
“But it needs to come out,” she said.
With regard to Smith’s claim that the removal of the court was done prematurely and without input from the RTM, she said, “the fact that the tennis court is identified as a staging area in the contract is an indication that it was no good, and it was time for it to be removed.”
Branigan said the base which is under the court will be intact enough after demolition so that a new tennis court could be positioned there.
“In my opinion, it would be less expensive to keep it right where it is,” she said.
Town Administrative Officer John Crary said in his view, the decision to rip up the tennis court “is not an administrative problem — it’s a policy issue.”
“The Parks & Recreation Commission has to decide — do they want a new tennis court there or don’t they?” he said. “This is about where they want to position their tennis courts.”
Crary said because the removal of the tennis court was in the contract approved by the RTM as an add alternate, that gave the Parks & Recreation Commission autonomy to decide whether or not it wanted to pursue that or not. With regard to presenting that specific item to the public, he said, “I don’t think there was any requirement, on their part, to do that.”
“They have independent authority, in terms of Parks & Recreation facilities,” he added.
Smith, however, asserts that someone at Town Hall had to make a decision on the add alternate item in the project — however, she said so far, no one in the town administration has come forward to take personal responsibility for making the request.
RTM moderator Karen Armour said while she was concerned about the lack of process which has been highlighted by Smith, she does not think the RTM was “misled” when the project was presented for approval.
“I don’t think I’d say we were duped,” she said. It’s not a plot .... but there certainly seems to have been some sort of a communications gap.”
“There are some places where the dots don’t connect, at the moment.”
(The Darien Times plans to follow up on this issue in an article next week)
By Patrick Barnard
The issue of the demolition of the tennis court at Cherry Lawn Park simmered
down a bit this past week, however, the RTM’s Rules Committee has reportedly
asked Cheryl Russell, chairman of the RTM’s Parks & Recreation Committee,
to investigate the matter and make a report to the full RTM at its meeting on
“I don’t like being put into this position,” Russell said during a brief interview Wednesday. “It’s not a position that I feel I should be in.”
Russell said her committee had a meeting scheduled this past Monday, and was ready to discuss a plan for creating the report. However, the committee didn’t have a quorum so the meeting was not held.
That, she said, means she has no “game plan” as to exactly how she is going to create her report.
“I am hoping that we’ll all be able to work on this together,” she said. “But as of right now, I honestly don’t know how I’m going to move forward from here. I really don’t want to hold a special meeting on this ...”
During an interview on Wednesday, RTM Moderator and Rules Committee Chairman Karen Armour said the Rules Committee met and discussed the matter last Monday. She said it is the role of the Parks & Recreation Committee “to be the RTM’s expert witness on the activities of the Parks & Recreation Commission,” which is why Russell was assigned the task of going back over all the documentation which had previously been dug up by Smith on the topic.
“It’s nothing personal,” Armour said of assigning Russell with the task. “It’s just that we decided that this was a matter for the Parks & Recreation Committee to look into ...”
The tennis court issue came up on Monday, March 22, when residents including RTM member Flora Smith observed a worker from Trumbull-based Standard Demolition Services tearing up the court with a back hoe.
The demolition company was in the park to begin razing the old, two-story Cherry Lawn Building (also known as the former home of the Darien Nature Center) — a project which the Parks & Recreation Commission had planned for more than five years ago, and which was, in many people’s view, long overdue. The project had already gained approval from the Parks & Recreation Commission, Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and the RTM.
The problem, according to Smith, is that the contractor tore up the tennis court first, before tearing down the building. She claims that when she asked the contractor why he was doing that, he explained that he was told “by his boss” at town Hall. to tear the tennis court up.
Smith said the problem was that during an RTM meeting in June 2003, it had been “promised” by members of the Parks & Recreation Commission that the tennis court would not be removed until after the building came down.
Smith has asserted that the Parks & Recreation Commission was not forthcoming with the RTM when it requested funds for the tear down of the building, because it indicated that a decision on the tennis court would come after demolition. She claims that the tennis court could have been repaired for a fraction of the cost of a new court — and has asked that the Parks & Recreation department forfeit the funds required to replace the court in it 2004-2005 budget request.
“This is not so much about the tennis court — it’s about the process that was used,” Smith said, adding that she believes the Parks & Recreation Commission intentionally misled the RTM for the purpose of sliding the tennis court’s removal “in through the back door.”
According to town Administrative Officer John Crary, however, the removal of the tennis court was approved by the RTM when it approved the budget request for the demolition, because the removal of the court had already been included in the contract as an “add/alternate” (meaning it was optional, based on whether or not there was enough money in the project budget).
During an interview last week, First Selectman Evonne Klein said the removal of the court was part of the project to begin with _ however, she acknowledged that maybe that wasn’t properly communicated to the RTM during the June 2003 meeting. Regardless of that, she said the tennis court had fallen into disrepair years ago and was slated to be removed anyway.
During last Monday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, Crary read an official response to Smith’s allegations.
“Last week, a number of questions were raised about the appropriateness of the removal of the surface of the single tennis court in front of the former nature center at Cherry Lawn Park,” Crary said. “This tennis court was constructed many years ago when the property had been a school. Three years ago the court was removed from use because the surface had become severely cracked and was no longer level.”
Crary said during an inspection of the court last year, “my first impression was that the surface could not be leveled with a simple repair and would likely require total excavation.”
“Obviously when a surface becomes distorted in this fashion something has occurred under the court to cause this movement,” he said. “I suspected that this cause was an insufficient base. In any event it was clear that the surface had to be removed and some remediation necessary to the sub base to provide support if a tennis.court was to be retained at this site.”
Crary said he was present at the June 2003 RTM meeting, and listened to the Parks & Recreation Commission’s request for an appropriation of $169,500 to permit the demolition at Cherry Lawn.
“Millie Miceli and Sue Swiatek reviewed the site plan for the park and the proposed work,” he said. “At that time RTM member, Flora Smith, offered an amendment to the motion. The amendment expressed the wishes of the RTM that the tennis court be preserved after the demolition was complete. Ms. Smith stated that the court ‘is slated to be removed.’ Sue Swiatek said the Parks & Recreation Commission (PRC) ‘has to decide if the tennis court will come back into play in its present location.’”
“It was clear to me that Ms. Smith viewed the removal of the tennis court surface as the removal of the tennis court,” Crary said. “While Ms. Swiatek said that the surface had to be removed because its condition made play unsafe, whether a new asphalt surface would be added to this location would have to wait for a future decision by the PRC. Obviously, if the base under the old court was in reasonable condition it would be less costly to put a new coat on top of this material. However, if the base was poor or could not salvaged then the court would have to be completely rebuilt and the PRC would have an opportunity to select the best location within the park for such a court.”
Crary said ultimately the RTM authorized the additional funds “and bids were let to demolish the former nature center.”
“Two alternates were also included in the bid,” he said. “They were to remove asbestos insulation and to remove the surface of the adjoining tennis court. The bids were received in mid August 2003 and were below the cost that our engineer had estimated. A purchase order was prepared to accept the entire bid submission including the two alternates. The purchase order was signed in early September 2003.”
Crary said that for a variety of reasons, including the removal of asbestos from within the building and the need to obtain a state signoff, demolition was delayed until March 22. On that date, he said, “the surface of the tennis court was removed along with the several sections of concrete sidewalk that were outside the building.”
Crary said he inspected the court immediately after its removal “and could find no evidence of any base under the court.”
“I asked Public Works Director Bob Steeger, to inspect the site and to also evaluate the condition of the base,” he said. “Typically a base for a tennis court would be between 12 inches to 24 inches of crushed stone and stone dust with a drainage system to keep water from entering the base. Mr. Steeger reported to me that the base was non-existent. In his opinion under no conditions would the existing material be suitable as a base for a tennis court. He said that the court would require a new base and a drainage system.”
“Given this condition the members of the Parks and Recreation Commission will now be able to determine whether a new court should be returned to the park and if so the most advantageous location for its placement,” Crary said. “Of course, at this time no funds are included in the proposed 2004/05 budget for such an improvement.”
Armour said the RTM Rules Committee may discuss the topic again during its meeting on April 12. She said it is unlikely any serious action will result from the investigation into the matter — however, she said it does shed some light on the need for the various boards and departments in the town government to foster better communication.
“The moral of the story is ... when you discuss these things, you have get the dialogue out to the public,” she said. “This is why you’re supposed to have ‘government in the sunshine’ ...”
Cheryl Russell's report to the RTM on April 26
Darien Times May 13, 2004
By Patrick Barnard
Cheryl Russell, chairman of the RTM Parks & Recreation Committee, gave
a special report to the RTM regarding the removal of a tennis court at Cherry
Lawn Park in February during Monday’s RTM budget meeting at Town Hall.
Russell was asked in April by the RTM’s Rules Committee to investigate the removal of the tennis court, after RTM member Flora Smith accused the Parks & Recreation Commission of misleading the RTM for the purpose of getting the tennis court removed “under the cover of darkness.”
The tennis court issue came up on Monday, March 22, when Smith observed a worker from Trumbull-based Standard Demolition Services tearing up the court with a back hoe.
The demolition company was in the park to begin razing the old, two-story Cherry Lawn Building (also known as the former home of the Darien Nature Center) — a project which the Parks & Recreation Commission had planned for more than five years, and which was, in many people’s view, long overdue. The project had already gained approval from the Parks & Recreation Commission, Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and the RTM.
The problem, according to Smith, is that the contractor tore up the tennis court first, before tearing down the building. She claims that when she asked the contractor why he was doing that, he explained that he was told “by his boss” at Town Hall to tear up the tennis court.
Smith said the problem was that during an RTM meeting in June 2003, it had been “promised” by members of the Parks & Recreation Commission that the tennis court would not be removed until after the building came down.
Smith has asserted that the Parks & Recreation Commission was not forthcoming with the RTM when it requested funds for the tear down of the building, because it indicated that a decision on the tennis court would come after demolition. She claims that the tennis court could have been repaired for a fraction of the cost of a new court — and asked that the Parks & Recreation department forfeit the funds required to replace the court in its 2004-2005 budget request.
“This is not so much about the tennis court — it’s about the process that was used,” Smith said in April, adding that she believes the Parks & Recreation Commission intentionally misled the RTM for the purpose of sliding the tennis court’s removal “in through the back door.”
During Monday’s meeting, Russell said her report would explain why the tennis court was removed and would reveal whether or not process was properly followed.
“In order to give you the facts regarding these questions, I met with First Selectman [Evonne] Klein, Town Administrator [John] Crary, Town Counsel [John Wayne] Fox, Planning and Zoning Director [Jeremy] Ginsberg, Parks and Recreation Director [Sue] Swiatek and Public Works Director [Bob] Steeger — numerous times. I have also researched minutes of the RTM, Parks and Recreation Commission and the RTM Parks and Recreation Committee.”
Russel said on June 16, 2003 “the RTM was asked to approve $169,500.00 for the demolition of the former nature center building in Cherry Lawn Park.”
In that RTM warning packet, every RTM member received, a memo from the Director of Parks and Recreation Swiatek, explaining the request for the money,” she said, while showing a schematic of the park on an overhead projector. “On the back of that memo was part of the construction drawing of Cherry Lawn, showing all the trees to be saved and the temporary fencing. It also shows demolish the building, demolish part of the concrete walk, demolish the timber walls, demolish the ramp and walkways, demolish the steps, demolish the loading dock, demolish the landing and demolish the tennis court.”
“Every RTM member knew the tennis court was to be demolished,” she said.
Russell said the next step in this process came in July 2003 “when the bids went out from the selectman's office.”
“On August 18, 2003 the bids were opened at 3 p.m.,” she said. “We had seven companies bidding on the project. There were three items for each contractor to bid on. 1) The building 2) Asbestos 3) Tennis Court. The Tennis Court was an add alternate. We knew we had to remove this tennis court and if the bids for the building and the asbestos came in under budget and the bid to remove the tennis court was within the budget we had, then we would be able to remove the tennis court at the same time. How creative it was to add this tennis court in as an add alternate and have the ability to remove it now rather than later, at what could have been a higher cost to the town. An add alternate in a contract is nothing new. We do it all the time. If we can get more of a project completed within the financial constraints we have.”
Russell said the contract was awarded to the lowest bidder in September 2003.
“Some people have questioned why the tennis court was removed first and not after the building was removed,” she said. “We have not been able to use this tennis court for three years because of its terrible condition. Therefore, this tennis court was to be the staging area for sorting the material from the demolition of the building. When the contractor drove his equipment onto the tennis court it crumbled. He could not mix the material and asphalt together. As a result, he removed the asphalt surface. There was no base under this tennis court.”
“I don’t understand what difference it made whether the tennis court came out yesterday, today or tomorrow,” Russell said. “As I stated before all members of the 2003 RTM knew this tennis court was to be demolished.”
The next question, she said, was whether or not process was followed correctly.
“Mr. Fox stated to me that based upon the material he has reviewed, he has not uncovered any inappropriate action,” she said. “We approved the money — bids go out, bids are opened, contract is awarded, that’s the process, and that’s what was followed.”
Russell, however, said confusion arose over some “misinformation” sent to members of the RTM and published in the local newspapers.
“It is unfortunate some people feel inaccurate information is the way you can get things done in this town,” she said. “I hope this report will clarify any misinformation.”
In addition to Russell’s report, Town Administrative Officer John Crary issued a report on April 23 stating that the tennis court did not have the proper base, including drainage, and that to repair it would have been comparable to replacing it anyway.
“In my opinion, the asphalt surface of the old court was most likely placed directly on the native soil, without adding any processed material for a base ... “
“In my opinion,” Crary added, “the soil exposed when the old asphalt was removed is not suitable for use as a base for a new asphalt surface.”
John van der Kieft's response to Cheryl Russell report to the RTM members on April 26.
To the Editor
The Darien Times:
In her report to the RTM on Monday May 10, I found it very interesting that
Cheryl Russell, chairman of the RTM Parks and Recreation Committee, was able
to conclude, “every RTM member knew the tennis court (at Cherry Lawn Park)
was to be demolished,” after she had reviewed the minutes of the June
16, 2003 RTM meeting.
If you were to review the minutes, you would learn that during discussion of Flora Smith’s amendment to “preserve the front single tennis court,” Ms. Russell is reported to have said, “the Parks & Recreation Commission should be allowed to come back with a plan for the tennis court,” and that she will then be “on the march” for it.
Earlier in the meeting, after the motion to appropriate funds “for demolition of the former nature center at Cherry Lawn Park” was seconded, Ms. Russell read a prepared statement advising of the Parks and Recreation Committee’s endorsement of this plan (motion). There is no mention of the tennis court in this statement.
Consider also that Millie Miceli, former chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission, read a prepared statement that advised on April 14, 1999 the commission decided the building should be demolished and “The Park and Recreation Commission is (now) requesting the funds necessary to complete the demolition.” There was no mention of the tennis court, nor any contingencies.
When Mr. Tamme, District VI, stated Ms. Smith said a decision had been made to remove the court, Ms. Miceli is reported to advise “the commission has not voted on anything regarding this tennis court at this time. When this project is over, the commission will look at the tennis court.”
Ms. Swiatek, director of Parks & Recreation and signatuer of the “Cherry Lawn Park Request for Appropriation” is recorded as advising “the commission has to decide if the tennis court will come back into play in its present location” and in response to another question advised “the court is currently out of play and will require funding for repairs, if the commission decides to do so at a future date.” In the request for appropriation there is no mention of demolishing the tennis court, nor any contingency.
Mr. Morton, District III, “suggested they vote the (Ms. Smith’s) amendment down and let the tennis court advocates work it out with the Parks and Recreation Commission.”
To me, the most telling evidence that “every member” did not know and more than likely most did not know was when I, as a member of the public, was appealing to try and preserve the court from unnecessary destruction so that it could possibly be saved and restored for play, “many RTM members raised a point of order, stating the resolution was not about demolition of the tennis court,” and I was asked to take my seat.
At this point Mr. Morton called the question, the motion for appropriation was seconded and passed unanimously.
Other than having “demolish” written over the tennis court on a blow-up of the park design, which I in fact called attention to when I was advised I was “out of order,” there is no mention of intending to demolish the court as a planned action, nor as a contingency. (A reduction of this design was included in each member’s handout.) The tennis court was an independent structure not connected to the nature center structure; and, while in a non-play condition, it had value and was redeemable. Two recognized tennis court contractors, Oval Tennis, Inc., and DeRosa Tennis Contractors, Inc., had examined the court, determined that it was repairable, and had provided modest estimates for restoring it to playable condition.
With regard to the “add alternate” issue, Ms. Swiatek is recorded as advising that “in the bid process, they thought they could put in an add alternate (removal of the surface of the court) which needs to be done to resurface the court. That is what ‘demolish court’ means.”
I’m afraid Ms. Russell’s contention “that every RTM member knew” is not supported by the minutes of the meeting. It’s sad a genuine effort wasn’t made to try and restore this court.
I’d say we’ve been “Cherry Lawned.”
John van der Kieft
75 Hanson Road
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