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Solution to Poth Street closure discussed

John Spriet prepares to recommend a $350,000 solution for Poth Street to Council. VOICE PHOTO

Proposal a third of previous estimate

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

Over a year after the road was first closed, Town Council heard a new proposal to fix Poth Street last Monday night from an engineering firm, one that offered a significantly cheaper solution than previously offered by Town staff and a different consultant.

John Spriet, from the London-based Spriet Associates Ltd., said that he “Just couldn’t imagine” why a previous consultant had recommended a solution that would have cost some $1.2 million dollars.

The previous proposal presented to Council involved the construction of deep footings to support replacement pipes. Spriet said that his proposal, which would see the two current culverts replaced with three smaller ones, would cost somewhere around $350,000.

“We think there is a solution,” said Spriet. “It’s called digging a hole, uncovering the old pipes [and putting new ones in].”

Steve Burt, a subcontractor who presented with Spriet, said, “I’ve never heard of a deep foundation supporting a pipe. To put a pipe in the ground you just need a granular base there, and make sure you’ve got granular backfill around it properly compacted.”

Both Spriet and Burt said that the current culvert failed because it rusted, not because it sunk into the ground.

“I wouldn’t think that a new pipe would settle any more than [the current one] did,” said Burt.

The culverts on Poth Street near Webber Road collapsed last April.

By last summer Town staff had spent some $40,000 on studies. In August, Director of Public Works Andrea Clemencio asked Council to approve a further $5,000 to $10,000 for soil testing.

At the time, then-Councillor Marvin Junkin was the most forceful in pushing back against the proposed testing.

“I’m a little puzzled,” he said. “Why [do] we have to spend more money on a geotechnical investigation…the reason those culverts failed didn’t have anything to do with twisting or leaning. The fact of the matter is that after forty years they rusted out, their life was done.”

Clemencio told Junkin and the rest of Council that bedrock needed to be found that could support provincially legislated loads.

“I’ve lived out in the country, I’ve been a farmer my whole life. You have something that lasted for forty years—and I’m sure they didn’t do geotechnical studies at that time. They probably just went down to what they thought was solid ground, put two feet of gravel, and put in these culverts,” said Junkin.

“It just blows my mind that something that was done forty years ago without all these surveys…lasted its lifetime.”

Despite the initial protestations of Junkin and others on Council, Clemencio received the extra money for testing.

In November, Council heard a report from GMBluePlan Engineering on the project, and Clemencio recommended that $1.2 million in the 2018 budget be considered to cover the cost of replacing the structure. The cheapest proposed solution, said Clemencio, was a steel bridge, plate-box culvert on footings and piles.

Council elected not to fund the project in the 2018 budget.

Junkin, who was in the public gallery at Council last Monday night, said that he couldn’t help but smile during Spriet’s presentation.

“All that money—$50,000 or $60,000—spent on the consultants who soil-tested and want those deep piles is just dust in the wind,” he said. “We’re not going to get that back.”

Junkin said that he still doesn’t understand why it has taken so long for the Town to come to a sensible solution to the problem.

“This whole time I’ve had contractors asking me, ‘What are they doing over there on Poth?’” said Junkin.

The delays have also frustrated Poth Street residents. A windstorm in December felled a tree across the road a ways down from the culvert, temporarily blocking some residents in on both sides. The next day one of these residents, Bruno Villalta, who is 75, went to Town Hall to speak with staff about the issue.

“I talked to [Director of Public Works] Andrea Clemencio and the CAO [Darren Ottaway],” says Villalta. “And I was told that there wasn’t any money, and that it wouldn’t be done until 2019.”

Villalta says that he asked the two what he was supposed to do, explaining that his wife is in a wheelchair and that he has a heart condition. A fallen tree or heavy snowfall could mean that an ambulance couldn’t reach them. There are currently several precarious looking trees along the same section of road.

“And the CAO told me, ‘Well, you could sell your house and move.’”

Ottaway did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Pelham’s Public Relations and Marketing Specialist, Marc Macdonald, confirmed that Ottaway and Villalta spoke, but that the CAO asserted he did not tell Villalta that he could sell his house if he was unhappy.

But despite Ottaway’s denial, he expressed a similar lack of interest in a Poth repair at other moments.

In written comments to Council, Ottaway asked, “Is this repair going to create wealth? Do the nine parcels generate wealth?”

In an audio recording of a meeting with several Pelham residents in January, Ottaway is heard to say, “Even if we had fifty billion in the bank, I’d be hard pressed to recommend that project to Council at this point. It doesn’t make any practical sense, whatsoever…Sulphur Springs is not a priority for us right now, and neither is Poth.”

Ottaway said that residents of Poth need only turn the other way out of their driveways.

“In order to meet the regulation, we’ve got to spend a million bucks.”

Ottaway said that he’s just posing a question: “Is it a responsible use of taxpayers’ money to replace a culvert for one person because they chose to live in an area that is in a rural setting?”

Ottaway asserted that he was only asking the question, not responding to it. But in the same meeting, he seemed to give an answer.

“They’ve exercised their constitutional right to live wherever they want, and yet now their expectation is that everyone else has to pay for that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Ottaway called a home in the area a “bad investment.”

“You chose to live there,” he said, addressing a hypothetical Poth resident. “That’s your problem. I’m sorry, that may sound harsh.”

Ottaway said that residents in rural areas are subsidized by Fonthill residents, since the taxes paid by rural residents aren’t even enough to cover the cost of plowing snow on their streets.

Villalta and his neighbour, Steve Jevcak, take issue with the suggestion that the repair boils down to whether spending the money in a rural area is a responsible investment.

“It’s not the Township of Fonthill, it’s the Town of Pelham. We’re in Pelham,” says Jevcak, calling it a reasonable expectation that the Town maintain all of its roads, regardless of where they are inside of the boundaries.

The road was first closed when a crack opened. The Town erected wooden barriers to stop cars from driving over it. Months later, a resident of the area filled in the gap with loose asphalt.

“Someone did that so that it would be passable for emergency vehicles,” said Jevcak. “The wooden barriers were still there. But then when the Town saw that it had been temporarily repaired, they came and put concrete barriers up so that no one can pass.”

When Council voted against repairing the culvert in 2018, the Mayor suggested that residents of Poth could “find solace” in trying to have their homes reassessed and their taxes reduced.

According to a former Town staffer, whose name the Voice has agreed to withhold, there was a proposal last spring through the Planning Department to fix the culvert for roughly $200,000 dollars, but this plan was quashed for unknown reasons. The newspaper has filed a freedom of information request for the proposal.

A week after the Voice’s story on Villalta was printed in January, Councillor Peter Papp said at Council that another solution was being investigated, though no specifics were provided. Last Monday night Councillors questioned John Spriet and Steve Burt about their plan.

“You’ve looked at geotechnical information produced by [a previous] consulting firm that examined soils,” said Councillor Gary Accursi. “And yet their recommendation is so diametrically opposed to yours. How do we rationalize that?”

Burt replied that Accursi would have to ask the other consultant.

“I don’t understand the recommendation,” he said.

Accursi also asked the two about whether there was a catastrophic risk involved in their proposed solution.

“If it’s done properly, then there’s little risk of a catastrophic failure,” said Bert.

“They’re not going to put garbage in the ground,” said Spriet.

Clemencio provided Council with a new timeline for the repair of the road, saying that a fix this year is not going to happen.

“In consultation with the Treasurer and CAO, proceeding with any unplanned construction at this site is not financially feasible at this time,” she wrote in her report.”

“Mr. Spriet has been very generous and hasn’t billed us yet,” said Clemencio. “The set-up budget is to be paid from the emergency Poth design [money]. We’re going to continue with this, nail down with the design so we are shovel-ready for 2019. We can have a tender in January or February for a repair next year.”

“At least they came to their senses,” said Bruno Villalta, who was in the audience on Monday.

Villalta said that it was obvious to him—and all other Poth residents—that deep pilings in the ground were unnecessary to replace the culvert.

An employee of a Niagara-based construction firm consulted by the Voice said that it was obvious from the very beginning that the culverts should’ve been replaced and that soil study wasn’t needed.

“[We] picked up on it right away,” said the employee. “The Town let it go too long.”

“Give me a break—it’s only two pieces of steel,” said Villalta. “Where are they going to go? They should’ve done it a year ago, but Ottaway has other priorities.”

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