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SOUTHPORT — The lower wharf in Southport is a picturesque, idyllic space where people can come to walk their dogs, sit on benches or go fishing.
"It's wonderful," said Marcia O'Connell, a Southport resident. "It's a no-brainer to have this for the community."
But the wharf's retaining wall has missing and broken stones, and the cement cap on top of it is chipped and cracked. Meanwhile, the fishing pier is in a state of disrepair, with a sign hanging on it warning people to stay off.
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The town wants to repair the retaining wall and its top layer of cement, as well as replace the pilons of the fishing pier and rebuild its walkway so people could use the pier again. The state is expected to approve the plan soon, though the funding piece is still in question.
Those at the wharf on Tuesday were met with a gentle breeze, geese swimming in the water and the sound of wind chimes on a nearby resident's front porch. O'Connell said she brings her dog Tucker to the wharf as often as she can, adding it can be quiet during the week but gets a lot of visitors on Saturdays.
"At one time, one of the schools brought their little boys over here once a week or once a month to fish as a group," she said. "I think the community loves it for that kind of reason."
O'Connell said she hopes they repair and improve the wharf, noting she once saw a wedding there where the fishing pier was used, and called the spot a boon to the community.
"I think it's really special, and I would be disappointed, and so would Tucker, if we lost it," she said.
Plans to repair the wharf, which officials said has been needed for a long time but became even more necessary after a storm last December, have been stymied by roadblocks at various points in the process. Kim Taylor, the chair of Fairfield's Harbor Management Commission, said the town is expecting state approval of the plans in the coming weeks.
Taylor said the wharf had been beginning to look "kind of seedy" in recent years.
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"It's a wonderful space for taking a look at Long Island Sound and strolling the beautiful village of Southport," she said. "But, if you've been down there, you can see that the retaining wall around the edges has stones beginning to slip out. The concrete edging is beginning to crack. There's supposed to be two piers down there. One of them had to be dismantled several years ago because it was falling in."
Taylor noted the other fishing pier had to be closed because it was unsafe. She said the commission decided years ago it needed to be spruced up.
Taylor said there were plans in the work to dredge the harbor in that spot around the boat launch, and the town got a grant from the Connecticut Port Authority to do it. This way, she said, boats could be launched at lower tides than the mud there currently allows.
"For a whole lot of reasons... we were unable to proceed with the dredging," she said, later noting the town ran into problems finding a place to put the material that would have been dug up.
So, Taylor said, the commission decided to move to phase two of its plan — fixing up the wharf and its piers. She said they sent in those plans to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for approval in February.
Also in February, town bodies approved $800,000 to do the work, with officials noting at the time that Fairfield was applying for a $640,000 grant to cover part of that expense, but were unsure if it would come through. Taylor said the Connecticut Port Authority has not issued that type of grant so far this year.
"We're not sure when the (Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program) grant process will re-open," she said.
So now, Taylor said, the town is in a situation where the plan will be approved but the funding source is in question. She said the town will immediately apply if the port authority starts issuing grants again, adding she thinks Fairfield would get the money if that happens.
"Or, maybe there's a wonderful person in town who wants to have a fishing pier named after them," she said. "That remains to be seen."
Taylor said she can't see how the work could be done in the next year, noting it is a project that has to be done in the winter. She said the fishing pier will likely not be open this summer.
"We've done everything we can possibly do, and until we come up with $800,000, we can't even go to bid," she said.
Robert Bruder, a longtime Fairfield resident, said he has been visiting the wharf with his dog Kip for a few years. He said it means a lot for the community to have a place like the wharf.
"There aren't a lot of places like this on the water, with boats and wildlife, overlooking the sound," she said. "It's an important part of the local lore."
Bruder said he sees people there all the time with their dogs or sitting on the benches, adding he used to see people fishing off the pier as well. He said it is in "pretty bad shape" now, and he hopes it gets fixed up.
"It's an important little enclave of the area," he said. "People come not only from town but also from other towns. It's a nice sort of interaction with community people and people from outside of it, and the dogs bring everyone together. It's kind of a meditative, benevolent environment."
CJ Young, a Milford resident who was fishing off the wharf, said he goes down there for the beauty as well as the fishing.
"I haven't come here this year yet, but historically it's pretty good fishing," he said, adding he primarily catches striped bass and bluefish there.
Young said he has in-laws that live nearby, and he used to go to the fishing pier just to hang out with his fiance.
"This is always a good spot to come down, walk the dog and just look around," he said.