Old Erie Canal Lock 62 has been overgrown and an abandoned mess for at least 50 years. While the original stone walls, laid without mortar are in surprisingly good shape, the terrain is woody and unavailable except to determined mountain bikers. Would anybody in this picturesque town near Rochester, really notice if the old rocky relic were allowed to remain unclaimed in the underbrush?
As Paul Schenkel, the head of the department of public works of the town of Pittsford sees it — the town’s reclamation of the historic site is yet one more solid representation of the town’s tagline — Pittsford, Preserving the Past and Pioneering for the Future. With a total budget for DPW of $8.5 million, for highways alone, he has 100 center lane miles to maintain, including work for the state and Monroe County. The highway crew numbers 38 and they are as likely to be working for parks, and vice versa with park workers. Paul likes to say the town employees are “cross functional,” which is how they get more done with fewer people.
Lock 62 is a good case in point using highway, parks and recreation, maintenance, and even GIS. The spot is destined to be partially filled with water in a small park-like setting. While early roads were never in good condition, the canal system was always smooth, and the towpaths along the sides of the canal are ideal for people who love being outdoors year around.
In physical facilities, DPW manages and maintains 108,554 square feet of space that range from a community center to the sewer department’s modest headquarters near the (Monroe Avenue) Clover Street bridge spanning the canal. Storm and sanitary sewers measure nearly 140 miles each.
Paul, a native and Pittsford Volunteer Fire Department former fire chief and current fire commissioner, has a friendly, casual demeanor. He is the direct report with an open door policy for 70 full-time employees and 35 seasonal part-time assistants. His office (he says he is a “neat freak”), in the old brick Town Hall, is shared with the town supervisor, town clerk, assessor, personnel, finance director, planning, zoning and code enforcement staff and many others, which facilitates conversations about how to make Pittsford an even better place, any time of day.
His pride in his town is evident. When life and work are one, you often find a person eager to come to work, even when the job description requires being on call 24/7.
As commissioner of public works, Paul oversees all operations for planning, zoning and development, engineering, GIS, operations, code enforcement, building inspector, fire marshall, parking, parks and recreation, sewer, building maintenance, highway, and, for the past several years, 12 crossing guards.
“This winter we sometimes had the highway crew working with building and maintenance to get the work done. For example, our sewer crew is fairly small (8), so one of them is putting in sidewalks today even as we speak. Every single day there is give and take. And by sharing office space, we all have day-to-day involvement with people like, the town engineer, our GIS person and others.”
Sharing services extends to the school district and fire department in some instances. For example, Michelle Debyah, GIS manager, also supports the village, school district, school system and fire department when GIS skills are needed.
Like so many projects here, the reclamation of old Lock 62 weaves across many departments where cross training is all part of the job. Eventual plans would return water to part of the canal, create a bridge for closer inspection, and replicate an original lock. The story of the Erie Canal continues to fascinate many people.
“The canal,” says Paul, “provides the identity for our community. We also have a series of parks all along the canal.”
A network of 30 miles of former towpath trails puts the water within reach, beautifying the neighborhoods it meanders past. Working with the parks department, DPW improvements just on the Port of Pittsford included amenities for boaters (electric and potable water) and a small pavilion stand for musical events and festivals.
While Pittsford, established in 1789, yet incorporated in 1827, came into being because of the canal, that long strip of water continues to play a big influence today in a place where local disputes might be whether or not people should feed the wild “duck-beggars” who work the water’s edge near popular restaurants, looking for handouts.
Highways, Tub Grinding
Highways, including state and county responsibilities for salting and plowing, is $711,750, not including labor, with CHIPS providing $171,213 — this does not include winter recovery costs. All of the town’s heavy equipment is painted green. The garage itself is cinderblock and appears to have morphed over the years with several modest additions. Paul will only say, “The garage presents challenges because of its age.” The old cinder block highway garage sits right in front of a very active tub grinder where wood and leaves are mulched and given to residents free. Landscapers also avail themselves to the disappearing piles of black gold for a modest fee while filling 18-wheeler loads. The red tub grinder represents the only piece of equipment on site that is leased. Paul explains, “We are pressed for space so it is most cost effective to lease the tub grinder which is a large piece of machinery to store.”
Symbolically, perhaps, the tub grinder operation personifies the green emphasis in Pittsford today where residents have weekly pickup of lawn debris. “Here are some of our important numbers,” said Paul. “We pick up a little over 6,300 tons of debris annually. We also have a contractor who gets what we refer to as ‘bagged, bundled, and containerized.’ The contractor picks up an additional 2,000 tons.”
Paul said they use a contractor because, “We do not compost, we recycle.”
Tub grinder operators do their best to separate wood and leaf products. The school district and two area colleges are also providing natural waste. When he adds it all up Paul says, “We are ultimately responsible for just over 11,000 tons of debris composed of both wood and leaves.”
Sewers — Flushables Not Welcome Here
Paul said they favor the direct approach, using direct mail to inform residents of any activity expected to take place on their streets or in their lives. As DPW head, he also is responsible for sewers — both sanitary and for storms, which means he is currently scripting a letter to residents asking them to not flush disposable diapers or wipes. While both products may have packing that says “flushable,” they are not. In New York City, wipes alone, when mixed with grease have produced obstructions weighing more than a ton. As one astute commentator on the issue pointed out — “You can flush a golf ball as well, but you shouldn’t do it.”
In Pittsford, neighborhood pump station operators have begun to notice a problem caused by these products designed for a society that doesn’t understand consequences.
“We are very proactive in our neighborhood notifications using direct mail. Whenever we do anything — drainage, adjoining parks, tree work, roads, whatever, we add an educational piece. ‘Why are we doing this at this time?’ They need to know.”
Something everybody notices is flooding and in Pittsford it is a thing of the past because of enormous projects addressing water abatement done years ago. Again, sharing responsibilities did the trick. In one instance, two country clubs on the same stream needed help getting rid of water. Both the Irondequoit Country and prestigious Oak Hill (sometimes home to the PGA), worked together with the town to create a facility upstream to help control flow.
“Pittsford was proactive in issues relating to flooding long before it was required by the state,” said Paul. “We have dozens of storm water detention ponds. We like to think we addressed environmental issues long before they became popular in the press.”
The town’s two bridges, on residential streets, he said qualify more as box culverts, although one of them gets lots of traffic during nearby golf events that require lots of heavy equipment and buses along the only road into Oak Hill Country Club. Having lots of out of towners for national events, Paul said, “Kind of transforms our community. It’s a big deal here.”
Life Long Replacement Cycles Throughout
Throughout highway, parks buildings sewer and other assignments the entire equipment inventory (Paul calls it his “arsenal”) is scripted in terms of when the piece of machinery came on board and when it is expected to leave and be sold at auction. All purchases are made with an eye on resale.
“Our town plow trucks used to run for 15 to 18 years. Now we are done with them in eight. Our front-end loaders are down to a four-year cycle, and our one-ton pickups are replaced in five.”
“Cindy Wolcott at Teitsworth has been a godsend by working with us on our replacement schedule. Even when we purchase something new, we are always looking at its resale value. Cindy knows about things likely to influence its value later on.”
Buying off another municipalities contract — called “piggy backing” — also allows the town to get the best price. Paul said they will purchase about $1 million in heavy equipment in 2015. And because they share between departments, he said it is easy for parks to have input on a highway purchase, which avoids redundancy.
Pittsford also relies heavily on shared services with neighboring municipalities including Monroe County.
For both organization and as a planning tool, all operations and equipment in all departments under his command have lifelong replacement cycles (through 2020) planned out well in advance, including roads. For example, all town roads are due for major upgrades every 12, 20, 28, and 36 years. When select roads are due for capital improvements, the call is for “Spot gutter treatment, milling and paving.” Capital improvements on 2.47 mile of roads will cost $508,489 this year. Preventive maintenance involves chipping, sealing, and patching. Just over nine miles accounting for 15 streets will cost $124,242 this year. Meanwhile, routine maintenance, which does not include plowing and salting, requires crack filling and patching trouble areas in just over seven miles of surface. The cost for a couple dozen streets needing routine maintenance is just over $15,000 this year.
Likewise, the fleet replacement schedule is planned out long before the last oil change. One glance at Paul’s fleet replacement work schedule for highway, parks, sewer, and town speaks to the variety of equipment necessary to deliver the amenities that town of Pittsford residents have come to expect.
“We never borrow money. The town likes to pay cash for everything. Pittsford is fiscally conservative, and the athletic fields initiative is a rare example when we will be bonded to do the work. With one of the 13th highest bond ratings in the state, it has been very easy for us to borrow money at a low rate,” said Paul.
Pittsford — A Wonderful Place
Pittsford has the Erie Canal to thank for its prominence as a commercial success as well as providing the water-based ambiance that makes it a desirable suburban place to live. Pittsford is one of few communities upstate that has a town-wide green plan, which co-mingles farm and park land. Visually the town is caught up in the past, circa 1800s Greek Revival, for the most part.
The town has a long tradition of no tax increases. Schools are excellent, property values are strong, and there is an emphasis on outdoors and good health. Interestingly the once abandoned canal has become a focal point for pedestrians and bicycle riders. In an ironic way, the vibrant commercial past that literally created the town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, directs a lot of leisure time today. Canal paths, with good hard gravel surfaces amble along the water route where mules once pulled the packet boats along. There are several commercial sight seeing boats for visitors including the Sam Patch, an authentic replication of a canal boat, but this one has fine dining and piped in canal music and songs.
A small piece of Powder Mill Park and a slice of Mendon Ponds Park are on the town’s park itinerary that totals 222.1 acres, much of it in use. Several large shopping centers help support the tax base. Major golf events take place here, and two private colleges are within walking distance to the village which always seems to be prospering.
A tightly planned community, much of the village and the town capture the spirit of the times circa 1880, but with modern plumbing and heat. Even the barns here are worth preserving. In fact, the town just purchased its second barn, which was carefully dismantled and is waiting for its new life as part of a “passive” town park, which means no athletic fields. Paul said, “We worked with Historic Pittsford on helping us acquire the barn, which citizens let us know they did not want to see torn down.”
There is a community emphasis on outdoors with organized fields for baseball, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and miles of well maintained trails for bicycles and pedestrians. Because of funding available to develop sidewalks near schools, the town is watching as Paul’s highway crew turns miles of turf into pedestrian friendly thoroughfares. Not coincidentally, one of the town’s newest pieces of equipment is a rubber-tire sidewalk plow (their first specifically made for the task) which cost in excess of $100,000.
Even though Pittsford is almost all “built out,” the town has a wide open rural feeling. Although the town is about 23 square miles, the town actually owns 1,289 acres of open space and has purchase development rights on 1,237 additional acres. So that stand of cattails full of songbirds or a freshly plowed field that you’ve been admiring, is probably part of a green initiative that was implemented well before the idea caught on nationwide. In the 1990s the town made the decision to purchase development rights to some of the town’s beautiful historic farms. This being Pittsford, one of the town’s founding families — named for Colonel Caleb Hopkins, the town’s first supervisor, War of 1812 hero, who was born in Pittsford, Vt. — continues to own farm land here.
Paul said when new developments are built, they are mandated to provide ample green and open space totaling 50 percent of the development. Paul added, “The preservation of open space is not just about storm water, which we are obligated to address. We want to maintain the rural feeling that’s always been here.”
It’s an attractive town and well maintained. DPW does its part with weekly pickup for lawn debris and regular pick ups for bagged and contained refuse.
“We are different from some municipalities in that we have weekly leaf pickup including yard debris.”
Big Changes in the Athletic Fields
Schoen Place, in the village, is always full of shoppers buying boutique items, cupcakes, burgers, and getting on bicycles for rent. The old port on the canal is probably even livelier than it was in the late 1800s. It also is the canal driving yet another initiative for Paul and his crew.
In addition to the reclamation of Old Lock 62, the William A. Carpenter Park at Port of Pittsford project was completed a couple of years ago. There are seven people in the parks department who maintain athletic fields, parks, and trails.
Paul and his crew are about to embark on a three-year project that will drastically address over use on the town’s athletic fields and a better match of facilities to interest. For example, while interest in baseball has been waning, the parks department is moving quickly to match the demand for soccer and lacrosse.
Worth noting Pittsford native Abby Wambach, is an Olympian soccer player.
For a major multi-million dollar, three-year project like this one, “We utilized an engineering and architectural firm specializing in athletic field development. Community input from athletic groups and residents is encouraged on many levels and in many ways. With the finished plan in place and outreach for grant money being done (no grants), Paul expects a ground breaking soon. The town, which traditionally pays cash for every good and service, will bond the work, which will total $6.7 million.
“A lot of our parks department effort goes into maintaining athletic fields of many descriptions,” said Paul. “We are putting in a new park on Willard Road and performing a multi-million dollar upgrade on all of the towns athletic fields.”
Paul’s enthusiasm is sparked by the cooperation between his department and the Pittsford Central School District. He said an overview of all facilities combined showed a bad pattern of over use.
“Between community groups, the school, and our town’s recreational programs, the athletic fields were not being allowed.”
Paul said recommended practice is to let fields rest for at least one growing season.
Pittsford has 10 parks and a community center of varying size and both passive (no athletic fields) and athletic friendly. Copper Beech Park, a pocket park of less than one acre is more decorative than active. On the top end is the Issac Gordon Nature park that totals 103 acres. The Great Embankment Park (see history), and Thornell Farm Park — both being revitalized — are around 30 acres each.
Another athletic innovation for parks is the use of artificial turf and adding night lights in some areas to extend the play. Artificial turf drains better than mud.
“At Thornell Park we are adding one synthetic turf field with lights. Both improvements will stretch the day longer and add to the season. All of our other rectangles and diamonds are going to be reconstructed with improved drainage, irrigation, and surfaces. This project will take three years to complete.”
Fake turf, which many homeowners are installing in drought-ridden California, Paul said is useful rather than closing fields to all activity because of excessive rain.
“If we have one synthetic field we can put some programs on there,” he said.
The marketing sample of a little cube of bright green, fake grass in a wooden box is unconvincing until you add up the benefits — no mowing, no chemicals, no mud, and it can last for 12 to 14 years. Paul said he expects to see the material in use more and more. “I think it is attractive.”
As every highway superintendent knows, there are some things that put the public’s good nature to the test. In Pittsford, it could be the term oil and stone.
“It’s the stone part,” said Paul. “They don’t understand why we can’t mill and resurface every time. We never use the term oil and stone. We prefer to call it chip seal and refer to the similarity to what they do in their own driveways. In my opinion chip seal is one-tenth the cost of milling and resurfacing a road. It is the most efficient and cost effective preventative maintenance for town roads.”
The other chestnut the public offers up is that the suggestion that taxpayers are paying for the roads and thus they can have an issue, especially in early spring when things are never optimum.
“When people mention the quality of a road and how much they pay in taxes, we simply need to gently educate them. Just over 8 percent of their taxes goes to the town of Pittsford, 62 percent goes to the schools, and 23 percent goes to Monroe County. They need to understand that only 8 percent of their taxes is going to the town, and highway maintenance is but one piece of the puzzle.”
Biggest Challenge Might Be Him!
Paul can describe something he calls the “DPW eye” where you imagine that every swell is mowed, every crack in the road is sealed and patched. “No matter where I am, I am always seeing dead trees, cracks in the road, whatever. In my mind’s eye, I can picture everything as perfect, even though I know that perfect is not attainable.”
No surprise that Paul once aspired to the career of landscape architect, in the same vein as Frederick Law Olmsted who did a lot of landscaping in Rochester.
“I am born and bred in Pittsford. In fact, I went to high school with Coleen Wegman.”
Coleen now helps run the Wegman enterprise. Wegmans (often ranked #2 for employee job satisfaction), is a mega hit for healthy food stuffs and more. Wegmans flagship store is in Pittsford where merchandise clearly reflects the needs of an affluent neighborhood. Paul’s father still runs a family business in metal plating. His mother was a long-time career person with the Pittsford School District.
Paul got his degree in land use planning from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He then worked as a GIS manager for Monroe County. He has been Pittsford’s DPW commissioner for 10 years.
Susan, Paul’s wife, is office manager for a software company devoted to fire department operations and owned by two of Paul’s brothers. His children are Will (11 ) and Abby (8). The family lives in a circa 1920 house they restored. Do the kids know what he does for a living? He said bike rides along the town trails help him keep them informed about the world of work. For fun and distraction his parent’s older cottage on Conesus Lake continues to produce solid family memories and lots of chores for Paul.
Although somewhat driven in his profession, one of his true goof-offs is something of a surprise because it appears to be meaningless to some. Paul and one of his brothers who is a wood worker like to cut and process fire wood harvested on their dad’s property above Honeoye Lake. Neither man burns wood, they just enjoy creating this working man’s meditation — creating those perfectly stacked monuments to physical endeavor, even when it no longer represents a means of survival.
Their effort may look a lot like the long term goal of rehabilitating old Lock 62.
This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.
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