Cocheco Avenue resident Fred Russo said he thought he was just signing up to host a potluck dinner once a year when he became president of Cocheco Avenue Association. One year after taking the helm from former president Tammi Hotchkiss, he had railed the neighborhood to pitch in $700 a house to fix the association’s seawall after their picturesque slice of Branford’s shoreline. Reciting his rally cry, Russo said, “This is our street, our right of way, our sea wall and our problem. We’re not going out of our street to solve this.”
Though Russo did handle the project among his neighbors, he said he did check with the town to see who owned the seawall. He said he was told that the common right of way at the end of the street was “no man’s land.” The association doesn’t own it, the town doesn’t own it but it has been enjoyed by the residents of the street for years, he said.
Lenny Reistetter confirmed that the beach right of way is "no man's land." The road itself, he furthered is not a town road. "I don't know who owns it," he said, "but it's not the town."
Russo said he also approached FEMA to assist with the project but was told he had to put his own home up for collateral in order to receive funding. A retired roofer with construction savvy, Russo took the project into his own hands and commented, “I became the general contractor.”
Russo, a lifelong Hamden resident bought his Cocheco Avenue home 23 years ago with his wife with intensions to flip the space. His three daughters, then children, begged him to keep the house for a summer home and for years it was used for just that. Five years ago Russo and his wife moved in fulltime and one of his daughters bought the house next door. It was perfect for Russo. Then in February of 2010, Russo lost his wife and found himself with more time on his hands. It was an easy transition for him that August to become the president of the Cocheco Avenue Association.
Russo started, he said, with about $900 in the association treasury and no real projects planned. An estimate to repair the cement seawall prior to Irene for existing wear and tear was cast at $20,000 – a figure that would take years to reach with association dues of $100 a year. But money and repairing the seawall was not a top priority for Russo when he began. “I knew I needed to raise money,” he said, “but not for a [replacement] seawall.”
Instead, Russo exercised his flare for writing and began issuing a monthly newsletter, Tides, for the 30-plus homes on the street. He talked about the history of the neighborhood, when the street was 33 feet wide opposed to the 23 feet it is now, he said. “It was sort of like an old cow path that got you to the water,” said Russo.
The residents, he said, reacted positively to the newsletter. Summer carried on and then Irene struck.
Though Cocheco is above sea level the storm wrecked havoc to the area, not unlike nearby , who also saw great devastation. The storm ripped up the seawall at the end of Cocheco and took it out to sea, said Russo. The sidewalk, handrail and land were ripped up and washed away.
Two neighbors who face the water at either end of the right of way also sustained significant damage to their personal seawalls, which were either ripped away or damaged and the fill from their yards was also taken out to sea.
Russo stepped up to the challenge of replacing the 70 feet of public and private seawall without any “outside” assistance. “The only reason people live here,” he said, “is Long Island Sound. I would not compromise what the people before me fought for.”
Russo got the private property owners who lost seawall and land to agree to fix the entire scope of the project together with the association. He then went out to get bids for the project, which included constructing a new seawall, a new sidewalk, new steps to the water, a handrail and fill. Bids came back as high as $200,000 and as low as $80,000. After informing residents about the cost, Russo said he was approached by a resident who suggested Branford-based Colosalle Construction. The suggestion was perfect and the bid for the entire package came in at $60,000.
With a little more than $4,000 in the association treasury and the private homeowners chipping in for their parts of the project, the cost to the association was about $21,000. Russo asked all homeowners on the street, including the two private owners already paying for their own seawall portions, to chip in $700 a property. To his surprise, 30 homeowners paid in full, paid more than asked or were put on a payment plan to make the project happen. On December 8 the project was completed.
Russo said 23 feet of seawall is once again open to the street for use. “I am glad we have our street back in order,” he said. “We wanted people who live at the end of the street to be able to walk-up and see Long Island Sound.”
Of his role, which has evolved from hosting that annual potluck Russo said, “That’s what I feel like I am now – I feel like the street advocate.”