CHATHAM — Addressing concerns that the deteriorating observation deck at the fish pier might collapse under the weight of summer visitors, selectmen Tuesday approved a conceptual plan to rebuild the structure with one that is stronger, more durable, and handicap-accessible.
The plan, prepared by Marion-based CLE Engineering, calls for a $1.2 million deck that is self-supporting, rather than supported by the packing house to which it is attached. That existing deck has deteriorated and does not meet building code requirements, and is set to be entirely replaced using a mixture of funding sources.
The new deck would be larger than the existing one, and would be built slightly higher. The result would not only be less crowding for sightseers, but more working space for the fish packers working below, engineer Susan Nilson told the board.
By expanding the edges of the deck to be even with the edge of the bulkhead below, it is possible to remove support beams that currently make it difficult for forklifts to maneuver, she said.
A key challenge was to make the new deck accessible to people who use wheelchairs or who have other mobility impairments, a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nilson said the project team considered installing a zig-zagging ramp, but found a number of disadvantages with that approach. With as many as six switch-backs, the ramp would take up valuable space in the parking lot, and would be more costly than other approaches. The ramp was rejected by the committee for the disabled, whose members felt it would be too long and difficult to ascend.
The team considered construction of a “sky bridge” linking the upper lot of the fish pier with the elevated observation deck on the packing house. That proposal was dismissed as unfeasible because it would not have provided sufficient clearance for tractor trailers to pass underneath, Nilson said. It also would have cost around $1 million, not including the cost of replacing the deck itself. To accommodate people with disabilities, planners even considered installing a video link that would show activity at the fish pier on television monitors near the wharfinger’s office, but they determined that it wouldn’t be a comparable experience to actually seeing fishing boats unload their catch.
The project team instead opted for a special elevator designed for exterior use. The model being considered has an open top, requires no machinery room, and seems suitable for the exposed location near the stairs, Nilson said.
“It turns out that the lift was significantly cheaper than the deck switch-back system,” Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said.
A key goal of the project is to improve safety not only for those using the observation deck but for all visitors to the fish pier, one of the town’s most popular tourist attractions. By providing a better vista of the south jog from the elevated deck, officials hope to discourage sightseers from walking across the busy parking lot to see the activity there.
Future improvements at the fish pier call for construction of a pedestrian path around the edge of the lower parking area that would keep sightseers and charter boat passengers out of the way of commercial fishermen and their vehicles, Duncanson said.
According to town figures, approximately 3,000 people visited the fish pier each day last June and July. That means that, over the course of a 10-week summer season, more 200,000 people visit the site to watch fishing boats unload and to observe the seals in Aunt Lydia's Cove. Acting on concerns about the deck’s structure and the lack of an emergency exit, the building commissioner required the town to put up signs limiting the deck to 100 visitors at any given time.
In addition to being significantly stronger, the new deck will also include a second staircase on the south side of the building, to be used only as an emergency exit.
Another key challenge is finding materials that are likely to withstand high winds, storm surges, salt air and heavy traffic. Engineers are recommending the use of composite decking, stainless steel hardware and beams made of “glue-lam” engineered wood. The decking itself would be a tongue-and-groove system that reduces the amount of water and contaminants that seep down to the offloading and packing area below.
To accomplish the installation of new beams next to the packing house, an existing fuel line would need to be relocated at a cost of around $150,000, Nilson said. But that change could be done in a way that would allow new fuel pumps to someday be installed at the south jog, an idea favored by commercial fishermen and members of the Aunt Lydia’s Cove committee.
“I’m excited by the proposal,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. The benefits of the design are many, he noted, though the cost is high. Selectmen voted unanimously to endorse the conceptual design, though they expect to issue their final approval once there is a clear plan to finance the work. With Tuesday’s vote, the engineers are now authorized to refine the plans and develop bid documents, with the project going out to bid late next spring or in the early summer. The work, if authorized, would take place in the late next fall and winter, with the deck opening to the public in the summer of 2019.
Interim work has been done on the existing deck to stabilize it, Duncanson said.
“The building commissioner is satisfied that, structurally, we’re able to get another summer out of it,” he said.
Funding for the project would likely include $590,000 earmarked for the job several years ago, with around $150,000 reserved for work on the fuel lines. The remainder of the project might be funded through an $11.3 million omnibus waterways bond authorization passed at this past May's annual town meeting, or might even include a grant from the Community Preservation Act’s fund for recreation projects.