Post-Irene program pushes towns into 21st century

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on funding of town reconstruction efforts after Tropical Storm Irene.
ADDISON COUNTY — The devastating Vermont flood of 1927 is known statewide among civic planners as the pivotal event that pushed state infrastructure from the 19th century into the 20th. Now, in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the state is forced to make a familiar decision: Rebuild roads, buildings and other infrastructure to meet 20th-century standards or restructure for the 21st century.
“This is Vermont’s opportunity to move from the 20th century into the 21st century, and I haven’t seen that we’re taking advantage of it yet,” said Tim Bouton, emergency response planner for the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. “I know that repairs happening now are, for the most part, not permanent. But I’m not sure whether we’ve made that leap to what a permanent repair looks like.”
Bouton is concerned the state will spend millions of tax dollars to rebuild the same infrastructure that just proved ineffective in the face of Irene, especially when federal funding sources do exist to help Vermont shift gears for the future.
“It concerns me. We’re putting people back in harm’s way. We’re spending tax dollars to create or recreate something that won’t work,” he said. “We’ve got a huge opportunity here to radically change how we think about (infrastructure) and how we build and we’re not doing it. One of the reasons we’re not doing it is because we feel we can’t afford it. And I believe we can’t afford not to do it.”
One source of funding that can help Vermont restructure for the future is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Established by the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act — named after the Vermont senator and Middlebury College graduate Robert T. Stafford, who spearheaded the act’s adoption — the grant program sets aside public funding for disaster-ridden towns to mitigate future hazards. Those funds equate to 15 percent of the total public costs to the state of a given disaster and will provide 75 percent of the funding for a given project.
When asked what the overall public cost of Irene might total, Bouton, Vermont Emergency Management officials and FEMA officials all agreed: It’s anyone’s guess.
“That’s a very wild number because … until FEMA determines the final amount they’re willing to pay the towns and all appeals from the towns have been completed, there won’t be a final number,” said Bouton.
When those numbers come in — likely not until spring or summer next year — the federal government will pass the baton to the state to determine who gets the funding. The grants can be used for planning purposes and specific projects, like Lincoln’s flood proofing of Burnham Hall against the New Haven River and Ripton’s 2008 work in the Middlebury River.
“Our most recent successful (hazard mitigation) project was the (river) re-armoring and accessing of a flood chute in the village of Ripton,” said Bouton. “There was very little damage there during the (Irene) flood event.”
The grants can also be used to buy out a devastated property.
“What happens in a buyout is the town approaches the owner of a property and asks if they’d be interested in a buyout,” said Bouton. “It’s totally a volunteer program. If the owner says, ‘Yes, I’m interested,’ then the town will apply. If the town gets the funds, they go back to the owner of the property and negotiate a deal. At that point, the property becomes a property of the town and any structures on it are removed and a restriction is put on the land that it can never be built on again.”
That’s what happened in Bristol after the ’98 flood. When a mobile home park off of Route 116 was inundated, the town used a hazard mitigation grant to buy the property and create Sycamore Park. The town of Lincoln is currently exploring a buyout of an old family home off of French Settlement Road.
These grants are particularly advantageous for Vermont towns, explained Bouton, because the money is already promised to the state, so towns don’t have to compete for it nationally.
In order to obtain one of these grants, a town needs to have a hazard mitigation plan and complete a lengthy application.
“Addison County was the first county to develop a mitigation plan in the state of Vermont,” explained Bouton. “It was basically a county plan, and we used that plan as an umbrella to develop annexes for each town to cover their specific issues.”
Since that plan expired in 2010, the regional planning commission has been working with interested towns to adopt new plans and get them federally approved. So far, only seven Addison County towns have plans: Ripton, Bristol, Lincoln, New Haven, Orwell, Granville and Hancock.
While Granville and Hancock — under the guidance of the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission, which has a plan much like the expired Addison County one — are the only towns that have formally approved plans, the others have been conditionally approved, which Bouton said is the biggest hurdle. Using FEMA’s recommendations, those five towns are currently in the process of polishing off their plans.
Since Irene, Bouton said FEMA’s been very responsive about these plans, but the agency hasn’t always been that way.
“One of the issues we’ve constantly run into is the responsiveness of FEMA,” he said. “These plans (the towns are currently finishing) were the third or fourth rewrite of a plan to meet reviewers’ standards. It’s hard to keep a town engaged when they don’t hear from you for a year because there’s a plan waiting review.”
The town of Middlebury is also pursuing a plan to shore up funding for river work along the East Middlebury stretch of the Middlebury River. The task, said Bouton, is daunting. But Middlebury officials are beginning to form a task force to create a plan.
“Middlebury tries to remain eligible for all of the things we can remain eligible for,” said Fred Dunnington, Middlebury town planner. “I want to tailor this (plan) specifically to what we want to be eligible for. I want to do a more thoughtful job and not just do a cookie cutter approach. I want to be more proactive. I want to test the what-ifs.”
With the largest town government in the county, Middlebury is best suited to finish a plan in a timely manner, said Bouton. The town also has two other elements working in its favor: The regional planning commission now has a template for these plans and the plan doesn’t need to be completed until the day the town is awarded hazard mitigation funding. Still, completing a plan is a tall task because FEMA’s used to working with county governments and Vermont doesn’t have them.
“FEMA officials recommend forming a committee of eight to 10 people in a community that meets once a month to bang out a plan in six months,” said Bouton. “You’re lucky if you can fill three to four selectboard spots (in Vermont), much less find eight to 10 people who are willing to sit around a table once a month and hammer out a mitigation plan. It’s a very drawn-out process that really was built for counties.”
Furthermore, even for those towns that have a plan, filing an application for one of these grants is long and exhaustive, designed for completion by a larger county government.
“This is a great source of money for a couple of projects that we’ve got,” said Bristol Town Administrator Bill Bryant. The problem is that Bristol doesn’t have the manpower to complete an application.
“The gentleman who oversees these grants estimates that it would take 50-100 hours,” added Bryant. “The application is very complicated.”
One of the reasons the application takes so long is because FEMA requires a lengthy cost-benefit analysis, to ensure that towns don’t just rebuild in harm’s way, but restructure to save property and taxpayer money in the future.
The town of Lincoln has indicated it will apply for hazard mitigation funding. In addition to the aforementioned buyout, the town is also looking to redesign the bottom quarter of French Settlement Road by Lincoln Road, which has consistently washed out over the years, and mitigate flooding around the bridge on Hall Road.
“We’re just going to be very methodical about our application,” said Barbara Rainville, chair of the Lincoln selectboard. “I truly find most of the people giving the money want to give it. So you have to do your best to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. But if it’s not perfect, FEMA’s probably willing to work with you.”
The state urges towns interested in these grants to submit a letter of intent to Vermont Emergency Management by Dec. 30, 2011, and file applications by Jan. 20, 2012. A second round of applications will be reviewed in March of 2012.
For more information on hazard mitigation grants in Vermont head to  http://vem.vermont.gov/mitigation/grants_4022.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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