BELFAST — At the Jan. 3 meeting of the Belfast City Council, City Manager Erin Herbig reported a preliminary damage estimate from the pre-Christmas storm that ravaged Belfast and surrounding communities. Councilors also approved next steps in securing a new or renovated public safety building on the current site of the fire department.

Herbig began her report to the council by thanking the emergency and power crews for their work through the storm. She noted that the impact of the wind and water was extensive.

“We’ve been working very hard to get a preliminary damage assessment,” she said. “The City of Belfast, as of right now, we are projecting around $120,000 in damages to public infrastructure. To update the council, we have submitted to FEMA for reimbursement, as well as our insurance provider.”

The city shoreline was pounded with wind and waves, destroying the harbormaster’s shed, damaging roads and depositing debris. The Belfast Boathouse received significant damage. The fencing that surrounds the Boathouse was partially destroyed with the surrounding area strewn with debris, rocks and seaweed. Councilor Neal Harkness noted that storm damage to the Boathouse area was becoming a recurring issue.

“Are we going to be, every year, rebuilding down by the Boathouse?” Harkness asked. “Didn’t we just do this a few years ago? I think we need to look long and hard about what we do down there. We’re going to get more and more of this stuff, and we need to be making decisions with that consideration. I think rebuilding back there without a plan, and something more durable, is foolhardy.”

Councilor Mike Hurley acknowledged that this would be the third time the city has made extensive repairs to the Boathouse area following storms and advocated for a different approach.

“I don’t think we need a fence,” Hurley said. “Something can be done with stone that will make that not a cliff. Rebuilding it a fourth time seems like not a great idea.”

Mayor Eric Sanders visited the Boathouse at high tide and found it “horrifying.” “I’m surprised the Boathouse survived,” he said. Sanders felt weather events of this nature were, and would be, occurring more frequently and urged the council to continue its discussions about the breakwater.

The Dec. 23, 2022, storm caused extensive damage to the fencing surrounding the Belfast Boathouse. Photo by Michelle Christian

“The breakwater needs to be four feet higher and 60 feet farther out,” Sanders said. “I share the concern that the amount of storms is going to increase. I think it’s wise for us to continue our thought process on the breakwater and figure out a plan of attack. It’s serviceable, but it’s not stopping those crushing waves.”

Councilor Mary Mortier closed the discussion by praising responders who sacrificed their holiday to keep Belfast safe during, and following, the storm.

“They were away from their families that whole weekend,” Mortier said. “We can’t thank them enough.”

The Council approved a request by Economic Development Director Thomas Kittridge to identify a firm and obtain a quote for developing preliminary designs and preliminary cost estimates for a public safety building.

The proposed facility would house Belfast Police, Fire and EMS services under the same roof. A feasibility study conducted at the current site of the Belfast Fire Department identified 2 acres of “dry” space on the property. That space is the current site of the Fire Department. Wetlands were also identified at the site. Kittredge informed the council that any construction on wetlands would require mitigation and make the project more complex.

Kittredge has secured $1.5 million from the Omnibus Bill to help pay for the project and said that additional sources of funding would be necessary.

“City Manager Herbig and I have had some meetings to try and determine next steps, “ Kittredge told the council. “The most logical is to develop some preliminary designs and preliminary cost estimates.”

Herbig noted the magnitude of the project and acknowledged that she and Kittredge were actively seeking additional funding sources. She also praised Kittredge’s efforts in securing initial funding from the Ominbus Bill, saying, “$1.5 million is no small beans.”

Herbig added the project should proceed in a similar fashion to the replacement of the Public Works Barage, with a working group to oversee a project with a broad scope. She requested that at least one councilor become part of this group.

“It could become a very large time commitment,” Herbig told councilors.

Councilor Mary Mortier, who served on the committee that oversaw construction of the Public Works Garage, volunteered to be a part of the public safety building committee.

“I have the experience with the public safety building,” Mortier told fellow councilors, “and I have the time.”

Councilor Paul Dean also volunteered to serve on the committee.

The price tag for a project of this magnitude concerned Hurley.

“I support the application,” Hurley said, “but I think this is going to be an extremely expensive project.”

Hurley noted the need for a new public works garage was immediate, a condition that pushed that project forward.

“The difference between this and the Public Works Garage was (the former public works garage) was a disaster. We had to get out of there.”  He noted that neither the fire nor police departments were in a similar condition. Hurley said supported Kittredge’s request because “it would clarify costs and ideas.”

Mortier noted the design and estimate request was a proper starting point to a long process with two different paths.

“It talks about new, and it talks about renovated,” she said about documents outlining the project, “if there’s a way to renovate it to serve a new need. This is a just the first step.”

Sanders closed the discussion by noting it was in the public interest to have a “top-notch” emergency response facility and threw his support behind Kittredge’s request.

“We have to begin to see where we end,” the mayor said.