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CT Construction Digest Wednesday October 14, 2020

Mill Hill Elementary School renovations begin in Fairfield 

Josh LaBella  FAIRFIELD — The long-awaited renovation at Mill Hill Elementary School has finally started after more than $1.2 million of additional money was approved and months of sometimes contentious debates.

The construction, which is projected to cost more than $23 million, aims to renovate and expand the school. It is expected to be completed in November 2021.

Town and school officials gathered Friday for a groundbreaking ceremony to officially kick off the next phase of the project, though work is already underway.

“This was really to get the kids involved and to get everyone else alerted that we are indeed breaking ground,” Tom Quinn, chair of the Mill Hill Building Committee, said last Thursday. “We already have construction vehicles out there. If you go by, you’ll see the amount of dirt that we’ve already moved.”

Quinn, who has chaired two other school building committees, said construction on the project began about seven weeks ago, noting crews have been moving earth, making things level and clearing trees. He said workers will start putting up cement, rebar and steel over the next three weeks.

“(The groundbreaking event) is really the harbinger of more to come,” Quinn said. “As a committee, we’ve been working on this about 15 months, so this has been a long time coming for us.”

A topic of some contention, the committee was engaged in a lengthy debate over what size to make the school since July of 2018. The Board of Selectmen charged them with putting together proposals for 304, 441 and 504 capacity models, leading to a long research process and heated town meetings.

In June of 2019, the Representative Town Meeting approved a the model that increased the school’s total capacity from 378 up to 441 and allocated $22 million for construction. In a debate falling largely along party lines, RTM members disputed the relative merits of the two higher options.

Many Democrats advocated for a 504-capacity school that could accommodate a growing student body and address racial imbalance issues at McKinley School, while some Republicans argued neither enrollment projections nor a redistricting plan supported these claims.

The Democratic-majority RTM ultimately voted unanimously to approve the funding for the 441-capacity model, with many members reluctant but wary of looming deadlines. The decision will ultimately mean the total amount of classrooms increases from 18 to 21, with 21 students per class.

In tandem with expanding the school, renovations will take place to update the school’s facilities to current health, welfare, safety and fire codes, as well as install and improve school security systems. Plans also include installing a sprinkler system and HVAC fresh air and air conditioning, replacing hallway lighting and lockers and updating bathrooms.

Additionally, 20 parking spaces will be added to the 96-space lot, addressing parking and traffic issues.

Earlier this year, the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance approved about $1.27 million more for the project. At the time, Quinn said the increase was needed due to external work and work inside the school.

The site work outside included increasing the storm water retention capacity and bolstering the soil so the buildings do not sink. It is estimated to cost $530,000.

The work inside the school, in part, consisted of putting in an HVAC system, installing acoustical dampening equipment and electrical work. Quinn said that has been estimated to cost $745,000.

While the BOF approved the increase, it took umbrage with the building committee adding a classroom to renovation plans and then removing it and claiming it as a savings. The finance board added a stipulation that the money could only be spent on aspects of the renovation that were in the approved designs.

Last Thursday, Quinn said the committee was hopeful the money allotted to the project will cover all costs associated with it.

“But you never know, once you open up different walls or dig a hole, what you’re going to find,” Quinn said, noting it comes with the territory of working on buildings that are 50-plus years old.

John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant brings ‘notoriety’ to Danbury and facility’s costly upgrades

Julia Perkins   DANBURY — Old bleachers may soon be set up in front of the city’s sewer plant.

“You can sit on the bleachers and have lunch and watch us process sewer septic,” Mayor Mark Boughton said.

The concept of sitting outside of the facility that is used to treat waste and enjoying the the day would have been relatively inconceivable a few months ago. But the newly christened “John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant” has brought the city national attention and amusement during the coronavirus pandemic.

HBO host John Oliver’s rant against Danbury led City Council to rename the plant in exchange for $55,000 in donations to Connecticut charities. A community fundraiser in honor of the new name could raise at least $100,000 for 10 area food banks. Donors who give at least $500 can receive a tour of the plant. “I see how it's brought some notoriety for Danbury nationally and internationally,” Danbury City Council member Farley Santos said at an ad hoc committee to discuss whether to rename the plant. “Perhaps we’re even creating a tourist attraction.”

The new name, which the city attorney called “ceremonial,” was largely popular with residents, who saw it as humorous fun. But council member Paul Rotello said there was seriousness to the issue as well, in part because of the plant’s importance to the city and how much taxpayers are spending to upgrade it.

“It’s not something we ignore,” he said. “It’s not something we push off to the side. It’s an integral part of the community.”

It remains to be seen whether the plant could become an attracting, but it’s shining a new light on a facility that the city begrudgingly approved borrowing $102 million for. Thanks to some changes to the renovation plan, the ongoing improvements are expected to cost about $72 million.

Environmental concerns lead to upgrades

The city fought for years against state and federal environmental mandates for what local officials said would be expensive upgrades to remove 98 percent of phosphorous from the water leaving the facility now known as the “John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant.”

Danbury lost those battles, and in November 2018 voters approved borrowing $102 million for an overhaul of the facility. Neighboring towns, including Bethel, Brookfield, Newtown and Ridgefield, that send their waste to the plant will pay for a percentage of the project.

A 2017 state report found that 95.5 percent of the phosphorous load at the discharge point at Limekiln Brook came from the facility. That brook flows to the Still River, which is connected to the Housatonic River, which empties into the Long Island Sound.

Excessive nutrients, such as phosphorous, in the water speeds up plant growth and reduces oxygen levels, which can kill animals, such as fish, said George Hicks, an engineer with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“It’s almost all coming from the plant,” Hicks said. “Unfortunately, that is really the only way to target the problem. That is not necessarily the case for other areas, but certainly in Danbury it is.”

About half of the state’s roughly 84 municipal sewage treatment plants were given phosphorous limits to meet, he said. Some of those required communities to upgrade their facilities, while others did not, Hicks said.

Ridgefield, for example, is combining its two plants into one for $48 million because of aging equipment and the new standards.

“We have some of the toughest limits, if not the most strict limits, in the state of Connecticut,” Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

Danbury officials want to be “good stewards of the environment,” Boughton said. But there are more cost effective ways to remove phosphorus from the state’s waterways, he said.

“The net impact of these changes is going to be minor,” he said.

With the upgrades incomplete, the facility removed 91 percent of the phosphorous in July and August and 92 percent in June, according to reports submitted to City Council.

In November 2018—the month the upgrades were approved— 63 percent of phosphorous was removed. October of that year, 88 percent of those nutrients were removed.

“It seems to me we’re spending an awful lot of money to remove a very, very tiny amount,” Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said.

Bethel sends about 1.25 million gallons per day to the plant, said Tom Villa, the town’s public utilities director. That’s more than any other community, aside from Danbury, so Bethel will pay for a higher percentage of the upgrades than the other towns.

That cost will fall on ratepayers connected to the town’s sewer system, Knickerbocker said. The town has hired a consultant to study how this will affect rates, which have not been changed since 2007, he said.

Not a total waste

Last upgraded in 1993, the plant will get new equipment and increase how much nitrogen, in addition to phosphorous, it removes.

“A lot of the equipment is beyond its useful life,” Boughton said. “A lot of the treatment systems are antiquated. There are more environmentally friendly ways of doing things.”

The project updates the digesters that treat the solids and includes a new fats, oils and grease facility, he said.

“We have always generated a portion of the plant’s power from the methane produced, but we’ll expand that to pretty much do the entire plant,” Boughton said.

Despite some construction delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the goal is to complete the project by April 2022.

The plant processed an average of 7.5 million gallons of sewage in August, according to a recent report to City Council. That’s 232.5 million gallons of sewage that month, on top of 1.2 million gallons of septic and about 462,000 pounds of sludge pumped to the digesters.

The new name of the plant is a small consolation prize for the cost.

“It makes the process more fun,” Knickerbocker said. “It’s still a tremendous amount of money.”

Raising Danbury’s profile

The sewer plant renaming, approved Thursday, has garnered international attention with stories written in publications from USA Today and the Hollywood Reporter to The Guardian and CBS News.

“It’s going to put us on the map again for what we do here in the city of Danbury for all of our great people that we have living here,” council member Fred Visconti said before the name was approved.

In addition to the bleachers, Boughton wants to install a placard—normally seen on prominent sites around the city—to explain the plant. This is in addition to the sign with the name Oliver has promised to provide.

Boughton floated the creation of a “poop trail,” similar to a wine trail, where people could visit sewer plants around the state.

But Rotello was unsure whether tourists will be attracted to the plant.

“I would not be surprised if someone from Bethel wants to drive by the sewer plant to look at the sign, but I don’t think we’re going to be fielding Bob’s Nebraska tour,” he said.

He does not think the plant will be the reason someone purchases a house in the city.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a negative, but I’m not sold it’s going to be a positive,” Rotello said. “It certainly indicates Danbury is up for a good time.”

One resident, who works at a wastewater treatment facility in a nearby town, said she hopes the name would help the community see these plants in a positive light.

“It’s disheartening that most residents either take such an essential service for granted or only interact with treatment plant staff in a negative way—sewer back-ups, etc.,” resident Alyssa Beck wrote to City Council. “I think allowing the sewer plant to be renamed will provide a tactile benefit to the community that is easily seen and understood by residents, which will benefit the treatment plant and its perception in the community overall.”