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Red Tape, Tough Decisions Delay Reopening of Cattus Island Park Building

Multitude of issues prompts county to hire architect to look into restoration

Cooper Environmental Center (Photo: Friends of Cattus Island/Facebook)
Cooper Environmental Center (Photo: Friends of Cattus Island/Facebook)
A number of difficult construction decisions as well as a hefty amount of red tape over permitting and compliance issues have kept a decades-old environmental center at Cattus Island County Park shuttered since Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012.

The Cooper Environmental Center, a facility at the park that for years featured environmental exhibits, presentations and a large meeting room, has been closed since it was flooded during the storm. While other county-owned buildings have been restored in the 16 months since Sandy struck, no work has been started to reopen the center. Crews have, however, largely gutted the building.

County officials said this week that there was no flood insurance policy held by the county for the building, but finances have not been the primary reason why restoration of the center has been held up.

"People say, 'why don’t you just go ahead and fix the building?'" said Freeholder John C. Bartlett. "That could be done, but can it be done to meet current design standards or current flood standards?"

The building would have to be raised to meet current flood elevation standards, but county officials are unsure if that is even possible. According to Bartlett, the Cooper building is constructed partially on pilings and partially on a concrete core foundation which, in all likelihood, is unable to be raised.

"You can’t just jack it up because there’s a concrete core base there," said Bartlett.

Furthermore, the building is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that mandates handicap accessibility in public buildings. In order to make the Cooper Center ADA compliant, the entire bathroom would have to be reconstructed, which would involve tearing out interior walls and changing water supply pipes and sewage drains.

To make the entrance to the building ADA compliant, Bartlett said, a ramp would have to be constructed in a wetlands area, which would require a wetlands development permit from the state – a bureaucratic issue that could consume county resources.

The county has hired an architect to review the entire site and report back to officials on how best to proceed, Bartlett said.

Public Concerns Prompt Discussions

County officials are beginning to address the issue of the Cooper building because it has been brought up at recent public meetings, as well as the fact that it has also spurred the creation of a group known as Friends of Cattus Island which has started soliciting donations to rebuild the environmental center. Bartlett cautioned against giving donations to the group because they are not affiliated with the county.

"They’re good hearted people, but they’ve gone about this in a way that is counter-productive, quite frankly, to what the county is trying to accomplish," said Bartlett. "That organization does not have the sanction of the Board of Chosen Freeholders nor the Parks Department, nor have they had any contact with anyone."

An attempt to reach the group was unsuccessful Wednesday night.

The freeholder board has been in talks with county attorney Jack Sahradnik in the hopes of copyrighting the name, "Cattus Island," though legal questions remain as to whether or not such an action can be accomplished.

"There are some difficulties, quite frankly, because it’s a geographic location as opposed to a unique name that you could copyright or trademark," Sahradnik said.

While the Cooper center is closed, the park itself is open to the public, officials said.
Heywood February 28, 2014 at 05:38 AM
So because it's not ADA compliant and would be difficult to make so, we all must suffer and no one will have it. All the laws and environmental regs we make seem to sometimes be counter-productive.

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