Middlebury getting conflicting river advice

EAST MIDDLEBURY — As Middlebury officials look to protect East Middlebury from future flooding, they told a crowd of local residents last Thursday that they’re caught between outside regulators, feeling abandoned by the state and blocked by the feds.
At a special meeting in East Middlebury, the selectboard and town administrators gathered concerns from 40 people in attendance. It came in response to citizen concerns, a state review and a federal investigation of river work done by the town in an East Middlebury stretch of the Middlebury River just after Tropical Storm Irene struck the state Aug. 28.
As for the East Middlebury residents at the Oct. 27 meeting, many said they were happy with the town’s work in the river.
“I’m so appreciative of what the town did: being right there (and) getting first in line to get that work done as soon as you could,” said East Middlebury resident Peggy Peabody. “I just don’t want you to stop (working in the river).”
Watch the video of this meeting
The controversy that led to the meeting arose when more than 50 Vermonters from across the county and state showed up at a September Middlebury selectboard meeting; many of whom voiced opposition to the town’s river dredging. The town promptly ceased its work and an ensuing Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) review found the town had exceeded verbal authorization by moving rocks in the riverbed 0.12 miles downstream of its permitted boundaries.
Following this review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the town that it was in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act because the town lacked a proper river work permit.
Town administrators and the selectboard have repeatedly said they were under the impression that a general permit issued by the federal government was sufficient for this work and thought they were following the emergency regulations stipulated by the state.
Although opposition to river work was loud in September, it was practically nonexistent at Thursday’s meeting. On the contrary, most residents thanked the town for its work and asked them to continue dredging sendiment and clearing debris.
“We were very thankful to see the town come and do what they did and take out a humongous log jam,” said East Middlebury resident Renita Welch. “We were very grateful for that and we wouldn’t mind if the town wanted to do more.”
Selectboard Chair John Tenny said the town presently doesn’t have authority to continue river work, but that it would not leave the East Middlebury residents to fend for themselves.
“The board and the administration are never looking to create (controversy) with the state and federal government,” he said. “At the same time, there’s certainly no one on this board or administration that’s going to shrink from (his or her) duty to do the work that has to be done if an emergency occurs.”
Town Planner Fred Dunnington pointed out that a group of people inspired by a recent disaster might not make the best long-term decisions about how to manage a complex environmental system like a river.
“From my observation, if you had to pick the worst possible time to get input on a management plan to do with a river, it would be immediately after a disaster … the time to do it well before, not three weeks after a major event like this,” he said.
Town Manager Bill Finger told those in favor of additional dredging that the long-term solution to managing the East Middlebury stretch of the Middlebury River might not lie in just river dredging.
“There (is one) extreme that says let the river do what it wants … and then there’s the other extreme that says let’s dig it out … and we obviously can’t go to either of those extremes,” he said. “We have to find a happy medium here and that’s what the town is going to be trying to do … unfortunately it’s not as simple and as logical as you and we would like to think it is.”
East Middlebury residents made one thing abundantly clear: They want something done to keep the river from flooding their homes. But according to Finger and Director of Operations Dan Werner, when Army Corps representatives visited the Middlebury River last week they didn’t offer any recommendations on how to proceed.
Instead they told the town to sit still and wait.
“The Army Corps … is saying we want to see what’s going to happen with all of this snow melt and all of these spring rains and we don’t want to see (any work done),” said Werner. “The feds, I think, are being left as an enforcement agency so it appears the state is (just) helping the people and nobody knows who’s on first.”
Selectman Dean George wondered where state officials were when they were needed.
“It sounds like now the ANR is backing away from what should be (its) responsibility and turning it over to the Corps of Engineers.”
But for East Middlebury residents whose homes and livelihoods are at a potential risk of future flooding, they don’t want to wait for state and federal regulators to make up their minds. They want something done sooner rather than later.
“If the selectboard … has suggestions as to how to channel residential pressure, East Middlebury can do that,” said Maren Mecham, whose property abuts the Middlebury River. “If there’s a constructive way for our voice to be heard … we would do that.”
A group of East Middlebury residents resolved to form a committee to petition their support of the town, in hope that state and Corps regulators would help recommend a course of action.
Among the concerns expressed at the meeting were:
•  The flood-control berm built in the late 1980s with Corps assistance is withering and residents on Ossie Road feel threatened.
•  Debris in the river, if left there, might create ice jams.
•  Garbage washed up on the banks from Irene should be picked up before the river swallows it.
In search of a solution to protect the town from future flooding, a local river scientist and a state legislator offered words of encouragement.
Rep. Paul Ralston told townspeople that he and fellow Middlebury Democrat Rep. Betty Nuovo, who was also in attendance, would push for state guidance of this issue.
“I heard something new tonight and something very important that Betty and I are going to take up,” he said. “I heard that the ANR is backing away and letting the federal Corps of Engineers be the primary referee … of this issue. And I think that’s unacceptable. I think the state of Vermont and ANR has a responsibility to … step up and help us.
“Now that there’s some controversy, that’s not the time for our state agency … to back away,” he added.
On the science end of the equation, Amy Sheldon, an East Middlebury resident and river scientist who conducted a recent study of the Middlebury River, told her fellow residents that they all have reason to be optimistic about this situation.
“I really sincerely believe that East Middlebury is in a unique position compared to other towns around the state in that we can come up with a design that can balance our residences and historic village staying intact (with) having a healthy river,” she said.
“What I hope is that this conversation leads us to better understand, as a community, what’s happening watershed-wide (in the river) … where we live and then design and model a long-term solution.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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