“Something Unexpected About Being Here Near the Sea”

Yesterday work resumed toward removing the cottages on Long Beach West. Demolition had been halted since April 15 due to the shorebird nesting season. But over the summer, the ghost town saw some new residents: vagabond artists who made the desolation of the place their canvas.

Ben Wolf, 27, the organizing member of the artist brigade, said the project is worth the application of the more than 30 gallons of paint used thus far, despite the sealed fate of the dilapidated ghost town.

“Life is ephemeral,” he said. “Art in a gallery only lasts for one month, but the chance of this lasting longer than a month is at least possible.”

Caledonia Curry, 32, Wolf’s girlfriend, said the natural landscape at Long Beach West is a force of inspiration for many artists in the retreat.

“There is something unexpected about being here near the sea,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a paradise, but at the same time you get the juxtaposition with the broken cottages. …”

Skinny-dipping, star-gazing and storytelling occupy the artists’ downtime. But often, they work all day and use flashlights to continue into the night.

Camping on the beach? Co-ed skinny-dipping? Dude! Why didn’t anybody call me?

Anyway, I hustled out there to take some photos of the art before it was gone. I wasn’t surprised to find the po-po stationed at the beginning of the construction road going through the dunes. I asked an officer about the artists. He said they didn’t know how long the artists had been camping on Long Beach West but the place was deserted now. He also said a lot of people had recently been ticketed for trespassing out there. He added that while it was acceptable for me to take pictures of the cottages from below the high-tide mark (which in Connecticut is open-access land), if I or anybody else went above it, we would be “jackpotted.” Does anybody really believe a main function of the police isn’t revenue collection?

I thanked him, then drove to a paddleboard launch far from his prying eyes. I paddled up Lewis Gut and used one of the still-existent docks to access the cottages. There was no one about; the workers were only doing preparation work on the road, with the actual demolition days away. I surreptitiously took my photos (exteriors only, since this cat has an aversion to treeing himself) and then paddled away. Mischief managed.

My favorites by far were the murals. The scale of the collages and their composition out of the environment made them fun too. I wish artists had been out there every summer since 2007. Having to commit a crime just to experience the exhibit is another demonstration of the ridiculousness that is Long Beach West and Pleasure Beach.

I’ve updated my photo essay on LBW, with some more pics of the artwork at the end. The narrative also includes new research and the events of the failed land deal.

Your Tax Dollars at Work on Long Beach West

Last week was the third anniversary of the cottage evictions on Long Beach West. I made my annual photo safari out to the peninsula to see how the stimulus-funded clean-up is progressing.

Beyond warning signs (ignore) and the construction road leading out through the dunes (great for running), I couldn’t see much difference once I arrived at the cottages. Perhaps slightly less detritus scattered about, but since there’s so much, it’s hard to tell if any of it has been taken away. The cottages themselves continue their deterioration and vehicles like the camper and the pickup truck remain. The blue above-ground water pipe, leading from a hydrant in Pleasure Beach to Long Beach West, is still smashed in several places, making it useless for fighting fires.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Post continues its superficial reporting about Pleasure Beach and LBW with a feature published last week on the status of the proposed water taxi from Bridgeport to the peninsula. I did some preliminary investigation earlier this year into the water taxi, and after fruitless phone calls and two absurd interviews with Elaine Ficarra, the mayor’s communications director, I realized there is no real plan. Bridgeport requested the funds ($1.9 million — an appropriation, not stimulus or recovery money as has sometimes been reported) without any hard ideas of what to do with them. All departments redirected my queries to the mayor’s office, where Ficarra was unable to answer the simplest questions. How much will be spent on renovation of the facilities already existent on the beach, the status of the docks, what (if anything) will be done with the burnt bridge, whether the water taxi will be publicly or privately O&Oed — “I don’t know” and “I’ll have to check” were Ficarra’s stock responses. It’s not even certain the taxi will run out of the East End, which this editorial assumes, or if it will be based at the Port Jeff ferry terminal clear on the other side of the city.

I asked Ficarra if she has been out to Pleasure Beach since the bridge fire. You can guess what her answer was. I can also guess whether the writer of the feature has been out there herself. I ask that question of everybody I interview regarding LBW and Pleasure Beach and an affirmative reply is the rare exception, not the rule. That to me is the most frustrating thing about covering this story: the disconnected conversations I have in which I inquire about things I’ve seen or experienced on the peninsula and the people making decisions about the place have no idea what I’m talking about.

Ghost Town Gallimaufry

The plan to sell Long Beach West to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is officially DOA:

“Unfortunately, due to an unprecedented decline in the real estate market and poor planning by previous town officials, the sale of Long Beach West for the $10 million price approved by the voters is no longer viable,” [Stratford mayor] Harkins said Thursday. “TPL has proposed termination of the agreement, and in light of these developments, I believe it is in the best interest of the town to explore other options of preserving and protecting this environmental treasure.

“As it stands today, the $10 million purchase price will never be certified by the federal government, who would have ultimately bought the property from the Trust for Public Land. If the agreement as it is currently written were to be executed, the Town of Stratford would be forced to accept a sales price that is far less than initially anticipated.”

TPL has no one to blame but themselves. If they had been more transparent and presented the townspeople with a realistic price tag in 2008, the voters probably would have still passed the referendum and the deal could have gone through.

In an open letter to his constituents, Harkins described learning the details behind the agreement: “I felt as though I was watching Chernobyl melting down.”

Meanwhile, only five houses remain in the Pennsylvania town sitting atop a smoldering coal fire:

After years of delay, state officials are now trying to complete the demolition of Centralia, a borough in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania that all but ceased to exist in the 1980s after the mine fire spread beneath homes and businesses, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes.

Friends and I have been considering a mountain-biking expedition to Centralia. From what I’ve read, the roads are primarily safe — traffic still passes through — but visitors shouldn’t trespass in the woods southwest of town. We’re looking for a complete stranger with whom we have no emotional attachment to ride point. Wanna come along?

Slashing Prices on Long Beach West

Looks like Stratford mayor John Harkins had to break the bad news to town officials — the same news I broke in December:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will start removing more than 40 vacant cottages, outbuildings and docks from Long Beach West in February even though local officials say the previously approved sale of the 35-acre barrier beach to the federal agency is in jeopardy.

Those are among the issues ironed out during a Wednesday night meeting among town and federal officials, who met behind closed doors in Harkins’ Town Hall office.

All sides agreed afterward that demolition of the cottages will move forward despite announcement recently by the non-profit Trust for Public Land — the intermediary agency that is supposed to transfer the property to the fish and wildlife service within five years — that the land is now valued at less than the minimum $10 million voters overwhelmingly approved in a November 2008 referendum.

With the land value now estimated at $7 million, and potentially lower, that means the sale is in jeopardy, according to both Harkins and TPL officials.

The consensus is the lower price tag calls for a new referendum, though my hope is this kills the deal permanently. Fish and Wildlife are not the villains in any sense but I see little gain — certainly not financial — in the town surrendering over a mile of deserted shoreline to federal authority. Development isn’t a concern; access is, and Stratford is better situated to steward Long Beach West than anyone else.

Long Beach Mess

My feature on Long Beach West, an abandoned collection of cottages on a barrier beach in Stratford, Connecticut is the cover story of this week’s Fairfield County Weekly.

It’s probably not terribly interesting if you don’t live in Stratford, but if you do, the story may come as a shock. The agreement to sell the beach to the federal government was sold to the citizens on the promise that Stratford would receive $10 million for the land. But as I show, that number is a made-up one:

Lisa Bassani, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, says that TPL and Stratford each did their own appraisals, resulting in two different numbers — one lower (TPL’s) and one higher (Stratford’s). They “split it down the middle” and mutually settled on a value of $10 million.

Bassani says TPL will submit a new appraisal to the Fish and Wildlife Service that adheres to Yellow Book standards. French says the appraisal must then be approved by the Appraisal Services Directorate, an office of the Department of the Interior. The Service cannot pay more than the figure listed in the appraisal — which could be less than $10 million, especially considering TPL’s previous appraisal.

I asked Ms. Bassani: If the FWS values the land at less than $10 million, will TPL still pay $10 mil to Stratford and then sell the land at a loss to FWS, perhaps using grants or donations to make up the difference? She said no. So if the Yellow Book appraisal comes back with a lesser valuation, there’s no way Stratford is going to receive $10 million — bad news to the two-thirds of Stratford voters who agreed to sell the land in a 2008 referendum.

My photo essay of Long Beach West is here.