By Sten Spinella, Day staff writer
For three years, lifelong resident Phyllis Bartelli pushed town officials to make the path to Waterford Beach handicapped-accessible.
But again and again she was met with bureaucratic pushback. So she set up her chair at the beach and began collecting signatures on a petition.
And when Rob Brule became first selectman in 2019, Bartelli bent his ear about the walkway. She told him seniors like her, or people with disabilities, are not able to access “our beautiful beach” because of the difficulty walking from the parking lot to the water.
And Bartelli said he listened.
“When you try to walk the path, it’s not wide enough for the wheelchairs. It’s hard for walking strollers through the rocky soil,” Bartelli said. “In my third year trying to change things, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to get myself down to the beach.' I have a walking disability, so here I am trying to carry my chair, my pocketbook and my little clipboard. I sat myself down, and believe me, I was only there two hours, and I received more than 100 signatures.”
Bartelli kept collecting signatures until she had about 300. She pitched ideas to people for the path, and she said almost everyone was receptive. Except her son, James Bartelli, the town Utility Commission assistant director.
“I call my father just to check in,” James said. “I said, ‘What’s mom doing, mom home?’ ‘Oh, no, no, no,’ my dad says. ‘She grabbed her beach chair and a clipboard and she’s going down to the beach.’ I said, ‘Why?’"
"He goes, ‘She wants a sidewalk. She wants something so handicapped people can get to the beach. She goes down there and sits in the parking lot and gets everyone to sign a petition.’ I said, ‘Shoot dad, she can’t do that!’”
James was concerned about his mother's rabble-rousing while he worked for the town. He also thought she didn't quite realize how daunting the task was.
“There’s so many hurdles you have to deal with. You have to get people on board, you have to get funding, you have to get permit approvals, it’s got to be budgeted,” James said. “There’s tidal waters, there’s inland waters, you got FEMA regulations, you got funding, you got capital improvements. I said, ‘This is not going to be an easy project.’ But she’s one of those people, you tell her ‘no’ and it just fuels the fire.”
Now, after more than a year of work by town staff, Phyllis’s demands have become a reality. The path from the parking lot to the Alewife Cove bridge, which is about a quarter mile, has been paved. The installation of two new handicapped-accessible bathrooms is in the works. New outdoor showers and water fountains and benches are coming. The work on the project was done almost entirely by town employees.
Work started in April 2020 and is ongoing. The first step was putting in utilities for the bathrooms and outdoor showers. Before work on the walkway began, the concrete pads for the bathroom were installed. Recreation and Parks Director Brian Flaherty said work on the sidewalk was delayed due to summer foot traffic. Landscaping and fencing was installed.
The town is still planning on installing an accessible mat, known as a mobi-mat, down toward the beach to ensure accessibility. Flaherty said the town would make sure the restroom trailer being set up will blend into the park and will have showers on the outside.
And there will be water fountains.
Steps to nowhere. The presence of hanging staircases, one in the middle of the park’s concert green and one on the path to the beach, have stumped residents. But Flaherty and Brule explained the steps will be used to provide safe accessibility for electricians to complete utility work. They will eventually be enclosed with arborvitae and other bushes.
Flaherty estimated the whole project would be completed sometime this summer.
“The project has kept us busy for a while,” he said. “It was a lot of trenching, a lot of sidewalk work, tree work, utility work — it was a good project, it really pulled a lot of town departments together.”
The collaboration is what impressed James Bartelli about the work. Typically departments operate in silos, he said. This is the first time he’s aware of a capital improvement project of this magnitude being carried out almost entirely by the town itself.
“This scenario was very different. It was, 'Let’s put a team together with representatives from each agency and get it done,' and that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “The fact that this was done in-house was amazing, not to mention it resulted in significant savings for taxpayers.”
Brule estimated that avoiding hiring a contractor and a project manager saved the town $170,000.
He said $368,987 was appropriated for the project. Of those funds, approximately $180,000 remains — enough to purchase two restroom facilities and complete the remaining utility work.
“Town staff estimated that the project could have cost over $500,000 if the project had been completed by private contractors,” Brule said. “The team of town employees who worked tirelessly in the field enabled us to realize significant savings."
“All the forms, the grading, the utilities, the water lines, the sewer lines, the manholes, every bit of that project was done utilizing our very talented staff,” James said. “I remember Rob asking me, and I said, ‘Absolutely it can be done in-house.’ There are a lot of talented people who work in town, you just have to utilize the resources. I think the guys had fun doing it. It is pretty cool.”
Phyllis Bartelli is gratified with what’s been done but she isn’t finished lobbying. She thinks there should be some sort of transportation — maybe by golf cart — to the beach for those who need it.
“I hear it’s absolutely beautiful. They’ve widened the path, they got the two new bathrooms, air conditioned, heated, accessible, they got the walkway mat to go down to the beach, it’s a big project,” she said. “One thing I did hear from my son is that the workers were so proud to be taking part of this and not contracting this outside. They were so excited that they could tell their kids one day that they helped get this done.”
Phyllis Bartelli doesn’t need to tell James she helped get it done. He’s well aware.
“It never ends with her,” James Bartelli. “I’m just wondering where she’s going to bring her clipboard next.”