Despite state warning, RTM moves ahead with history study of Saugatuck bridge
The Representative Town Meeting has unanimously approved forming a study committee to consider whether the Saugatuck swing bridge — recently called “severely deficient by the state — should be declared a local historic landmark, even though the first selectman cautioned it might not be a good idea.
Fears about the future of the Bridge Street span — formally, the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge —surfaced recently among local preservationists many after the state’s findings about a host of problems with the bridge, which carries state Route 136 over the Saugatuck River.
The state Department of Transportation is now conducting a more detailed study of the 131-year-old bridge, which is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to see whether it should be repaired or replaced.
Meanwhile, some residents have appealed to the town’s Historic District Commission about taking steps to grant a local historic designation.
In order to do so, however, the town will require the DOT’s permission, as titular owner of the bridge. Based on a Sept. 29 letter received by First Selectman Jim Marpe from the DOT commissioner, however, that will not be forthcoming.
“The department will not endorse the proposed designation (and) would object to such a designation, should it be pursued,” wrote Commissioner James Redeker, noting that his department considers the national designation “sufficiently addresses any protection status for the swing bridge, requiring that any proposed action taken by the department that might affect the bridge’s historic integrity be examined, justified and approved.”
“We need to maintain a positive and collaborative working relationship with the Department of Transportation,” Marpe told the RTM after reading the letter at its Tuesday session, indicating that a wait-and-see tact might better serve the town’s desire to preserve the bridge in the long run, which he shares.
The Historic District Commission itself was split when the matter came before that panel last month, with its chairman and vice chairman arguing a similar approach. In a 3-2 vote, however, the HDC endorsed pursuit of the study committee, which required RTM approval.
“I think that if we want to preserve the bridge, I think it’s important we go forward with the study, despite the Redeker letter but in some ways because of the Redeker letter,” said Selectman Helen Garten. “I think it’s going to help everybody make a stronger case to the DOT why this bridge is important to us.”
In the late 1990s, following strong protests from the town, the DOT made repairs and opted to redesign the bridge in such a way that its top metal structure would maintain intact.
“I ran against a first selectman who was very much in favor of this bridge being replaced,” said Martha Hauhuth, a former first selectman helping spearhead the preservation issue. “We formed a citizens’ group,” she said. “We advocated very vocally and very energetically for the bridge.”
RTM member Wendy Batteau, District 8, pointed out the RTM’s vote was only to appoint the HDC as the committee that would study the possibility of the historic designation.
“We’re not even being asked to make a decision about whether to designate the bridge as a historic property,” she said. “We’re just being asked to have a study committee … It seems to be a no-brainer.”
According to Redeker’s letter, the DOT’s rehabilitation study should be completed by late February next year, after which a public information meeting will likely be scheduled in April “to present the study and design recommendations.”