Saturday, July 13, 2013

Bridgeport could swallow driveway cost: Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR), Connecticut

BRIDGEPORT -- The mayor's office said the city had no choice -- Bridgeport had to buy millionaire developer Manuel "Manny" Moutinho a $400,000 gravel driveway so his old dirt one could be abandoned for an airport safety project. 

 But if a judge's ruling stands and Moutinho's driveway, which he was also hired to build, is demolished, the city may have to both absorb that $400,000 and spend more taxpayer money fitting the dirt driveway into the plans.

"Worst case, the existing (dirt) driveway could stay where it is," said Micheal Grzywinski, a senior environmental analyst with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Grzywinski is overseeing the permit process for a new safety zone at Bridgeport-owned Sikorsky Memorial Airport, located in Stratford. Both of Moutinho's driveways -- the new and the old -- start in Stratford and cross airport rights-of-way enroute to his mansion on Stratford's shoreline.

In early June, Hearst Connecticut Newspapers reported that Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch's administration this winter quietly took over Moutinho's plans and permits for a new, 1,000-foot long, 20-foot wide gravel driveway for himself and three neighboring property owners.

And the city -- with the help of Airport Manager John Ricci -- skirted competitive bidding procedures and hired Moutinho's Mark IV Construction to install it.

The mayor suspended Ricci after Hearst reported on the manager's long friendship and history of real estate dealings with Moutinho, a clear conflict of interest. But the Finch administration has never said it was wrong to buy Moutinho a driveway.

The city has said Moutinho's original dirt driveway -- across from a Sikorsky runway -- had to be abandoned to build a federal-mandated runway safety zone by 2016. So they said they owed Moutinho a driveway, even though he had been planning to build a $200,000 one for himself and obtained the necessary permits last summer from Stratford.

The already controversial situation turned even more complicated for Finch on July 2 when state Superior Court Judge Dale Radcliffe ruled that Stratford erred in giving Moutinho a zoning variance to build the driveway through wetlands. The lawsuit had been filed last September by residents of Breakwater Key condominiums and could result in Stratford ordering Moutinho and Bridgeport to tear up the driveway and restore the wetlands.

Radcliffe did not base his decision on anything involving safety at Sikorsky because that topic never came up when Moutinho was before Stratford's land-use boards.

Instead, Moutinho claimed the dirt driveway flooded and the state DEEP had ordered Bridgeport to abandon the right-of-way to restore the area to wetlands.

No such order was given, Radcliffe concluded, and the DEEP would have allowed Moutinho to repair his dirt driveway for further use.

That option remains on the table, Grzywinski said.

In 2009 the DEEP issued a notice of violation to Moutinho, two of his neighbors and the city. State inspectors discovered unauthorized work on the dirt driveway, including the filling in of a culvert for a creek. DEEP ordered it fixed.

The work, however, was never done. It was never Bridgeport's responsibility to maintain the dirt driveway; only to allow Moutinho, his neighbors and their predecessors to use it. And then at some point, significant environmental contamination from Stratford's Raymark federal Superfund site was discovered, complicating the repairs.

Ultimately, the decision was made to fold the soil cleanup into construction of the Sikorsky safety zone because that would take up a portion of the dirt driveway. But Grzywionski said the original permission granting the city and homeowners the ability to repair the culvert for continued use was never revoked.

"But any work to the existing culvert and (dirt) access drive would have to be done in conjunction with ... removal activities," Grzywinski said. "Those need to be done hand in hand."

Grzywinski noted he is uncertain whether Bridgeport's runway safety plans could be redrafted to include Moutinho's original dirt driveway.

One of the most common envisioned scenarios is Moutinho will file an appeal, which preserves the gravel driveway, and Bridgeport will use that time to reapply for permits in Stratford, this time emphasizing the airport safety project.

Breakwater's attorney, Richard Saxl, has indicated he will fight attempts to preserve the new driveway.

Another state agency involved in the airport work -- the state Department of Transportation -- indicated the driveway is Bridgeport's problem to solve. The DOT will ultimately manage construction once Bridgeport obtains its permits and finalizes its plans for the safety zone.

"This is an entirely locally owned project," said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. "This is not yet anything under DOT's control or authority ... We're building what they have provided us with. The details of why something's being done a certain way or why it's not would still end up going back to them."


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