In Somers: Sen. Kissel Presses CT Officials on Soapstone Mt. Tower Plan (Journal Inquirer)

December 2, 2015

By Will Healey
Journal Inquirer

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

SOMERS — The lookout tower atop Soapstone Mountain remains closed indefinitely, with no firm timetable from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on when it will re-open, according to a letter written on behalf of DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee.

The letter, dated Oct. 15 from Bureau of Outdoor Recreation Chief Michael Lambert, was written in response to a Sept. 25 letter from Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield. In his letter, Kissel expressed his disappointment over the manner of the closure of the 30-foot-high wooden tower, which sits atop the 1,075-foot-high Soapstone Mountain in Shenipsit State Forest. The tower, which has rewarded hikers with breathtaking views for decades, was deemed structurally unsafe by DEEP in October 2014, but people continued to use it until DEEP removed a portion of its stairs in early September of this year.

Kissel took particular issue with the agency’s lack of communication with town officials over the tower’s structural problems, its closure, and what, if any, plans DEEP has to re-open the tower.

In his response, Lambert apologized on DEEP’s behalf for not informing First Selectwoman Lisa Pellegrini of the “conditions which necessitated the closure in 2014.” Lambert cited structural problems with floor joists, decking, railings, and carrying beams, as well as rail spacing and stairway construction that didn’t meet existing building codes as reasons for closing the tower.

Lambert couldn’t offer a timeline for when the tower would re-open, citing the need for a “thorough engineering review and design consideration” before going ahead with any repairs.

“We are evaluating the rehabilitation project collectively and will gladly inform you when we have a better understanding of the project scope,” he said.

As far as the next steps, Lambert said he would be scheduling a meeting to assess the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation’s statewide list of maintenance and repair projects. He said “we will take an objective look at this project as compared to the other statewide needs and prioritize the tower rehabilitation with other needs.”

Lambert said one option that DEEP’s engineering staff is exploring is possibly partnering with the University of Connecticut’s School of Engineering to offer the project as a senior design project this spring.

Lambert concluded by promising that DEEP would keep Pellegrini apprised of the project as it moves forward.

In late October, Kissel said he appreciated Lambert’s response, but he vowed to continue to press DEEP in order to get the rehabilitation completed and the tower re-opened.

“State officials have acknowledged their lack of communication with Somers and have vowed to improve, so that’s a good start,” he said. “The lookout tower is a local and regional resource — particularly during this beautiful time of year — drawing people to Somers far and wide. We all want to see the tower returned to functional use as soon as possible. The key is for state officials to know that we are focused on this issue and will be closely monitoring its progress. I look forward to seeing a specific, detailed action plan.”

Pellegrini said last week that she hadn’t heard anything since Lambert’s letter regarding the project. She said she appreciated DEEP’s acknowledgement of the lack of communication, and its plans for the tower.

“I appreciate it and I don’t think it was intentional,” she said. “I believe they were and continue to be focused on user safety first and foremost. I applaud their creativity in using this as a project for university students.”

DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said today that the meeting to assess statewide projects that Lambert referred to in his letter has yet to take place, and was scheduled for “early in the new year.” He said DEEP has had initial conversations with UConn’s engineering school about the project, though nothing had been finalized.