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WTF: What's Going on in Burlington's Urban Reserve? 

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • matthew thorsen

Up until a few days ago, a weather-stained lighthouse sat offshore from Burlington's Oakledge Park. It never had any luminary ability; it was, in other words, a fake. And now it's gone.

If you've traveled a few miles farther north up the Burlington Bike Path, you've likely noticed that the Urban Reserve — the 40-acre stretch of land between the Moran Plant and North Beach also known as the North 40 — resembles a construction site right now, with the requisite Porta-Potties, gravel piles and large equipment.

In March, Burlington voters approved a sweeping plan to develop the waterfront, which, among other things, would renovate the Moran Plant, upgrade the marina and establish a permanent sailing center. But that overhaul included no provisions for manicuring the slightly feral Urban Reserve. So what's the deal?

Turns out, the activity on the Urban Reserve is directly related to the disappeared lighthouse, and both have to do with three dolphins that will take off from Burlington Bay within the next 90 days. Which leads us to another WTF: There are dolphins in Lake Champlain?

Sorry to disappoint, but these are the mooring, not the mammalian kind. The rusted steel structures — cylindrical or rectangular, some with strange protrusions — sit offshore, partially submerged. The fake lighthouse had been constructed atop one of them in an attempt to pretty it up.

Also called oil bollards, the dolphins are relics of a bygone era when barges traversed Lake Champlain, delivering black gold to nine oil-tank "farms" on Burlington's waterfront. The boats would stop at the dolphins and unload oil that was then transported through pipelines to tanks on the shore. The last of the oil tanks closed in the mid-1990s and were removed as part of a city effort to spruce up the waterfront. Yet a number of the dolphins outlived the industry. These three were slated for demolition 11 years ago. Now their time has arrived.

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • matthew thorsen

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the operation, which is expected to cost $1.3 million. The funding for the project also harks back to a bygone era: Sen. Patrick Leahy secured several federal earmarks to make it happen.

Now that the practice of earmarking is prohibited and federal funding is doled out according to a formula, "the administration likely would not prioritize" the dolphin-removal project, said an aide at Leahy's office. Even back then, in the mid-2000s, getting the funding was "quite a coup," according to an official at Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), who noted the process involved "a little bit of friendly arm-twisting."

Why has the project taken more than a decade to get under way? "As the Army Corps can attest, they are very good at doing big and complicated projects, but they don't move quickly," observed the Leahy aide. According to CEDO, the Army Corps also has had more pressing projects — such as addressing major flooding out west. And before it got started in Burlington, the corps had to complete environmental assessments and archaeological surveys to ensure that the dolphin-removal process would not endanger marine creatures or disrupt significant historical artifacts.

Work began recently with the removal of the lighthouse. The Urban Reserve is simply a staging ground for the action out on the water. A barge stationed alongside the Reserve is serving as a floating construction site, carrying an excavator to the dolphins to lift the remnants out of the water. A team of divers will do the finer dismantling work underwater, cutting the pipelines and capping them with waterproof concrete. The resultant rubble will be transported back to the North 40 and then to an appropriate disposal site.

Traces of petroleum may still be encased in the structures. That possibility complicates the removal process, requiring additional precautions to prevent leaching. When the project is complete, approximately 40 tons of steel, 36 cubic yards of concrete and 610 cubic yards of gravel and cobble fill will be disposed of off-site, according to an Army Corps report.

Why go to all the trouble? Two of the dolphins are located in the harbor — just off Perkins Pier — and pose what the Army Corps calls a "navigational hazard." Jesse Bridges, director of Burlington Parks and Recreation, said he hasn't heard of any boats that have run into the structures, but they do stand in the way of the city's plans to expand the marina and mooring area.

The third dolphin, the one with the fake lighthouse, was targeted because its aging tower was listing at an angle that suggested it might tip one day. It won't be salvaged, Bridges explained, because "there's not a fund in place to maintain a fake lighthouse."

City officials say another reason for the demolition project is that the structures aren't aesthetically pleasing. They are not, however, totally outmoded. Several other dolphins, located off Oakledge Park and the Urban Reserve, will remain — permanently, if Chip Perry of Waterfront Diving Center gets his way. "We would miss those," he said, speaking on behalf of Burlington's diver community.

The dolphins serve as a sort of base camp for divers setting off to probe the depths of Lake Champlain, Perry explained. Like an underwater road system, the pipelines running to shore help divers navigate. One of the Oakledge dolphins is conveniently located near a shipwreck. The dolphins themselves, dating to the 1920s, are also considered historic.

City officials said they have no funding nor immediate plans to remove the remaining dolphins.

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Alicia Freese

Alicia Freese

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Alicia Freese is a Seven Days staff writer.

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