East Middlebury struggles to find funds for flood mitigation

EAST MIDDLEBURY — On Thursday night, members of the Middlebury River task force — comprised of citizens, scientists and local officials — spoke with more than 50 people in East Middlebury about the contentious future of the river that flooded the village during Tropical Storm Irene.
Funding for an engineering analysis of the river appears to be on its way, said Amy Sheldon, a river scientist and Middlebury planning commission member who is head of the task force. But additional funding to mitigate future flood hazards didn’t come through, she said, and property owners who are calling for speedy river alterations might have to wait two years.
After Irene flooded the streets of East Middlebury last August, the town of Middlebury dredged the river in an effort to protect infrastructure and guard against future damage. A dispute flared up, when conservationists — concerned about the increased danger of flooding and destruction of habitat — called for the town to halt work in the river until a thorough plan was developed.
State officials flagged the town for overstepping the authority they had verbally granted to alter the river. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slapped Middlebury with a Clean Water Act violation, ordering the town to cease further river work. Meanwhile, many area property owners called for speedy river alterations in the hope that such work would protect their homes from future flooding
Sheldon met with these concerned parties in the East Middlebury United Methodist Church on Thursday, where she outlined the river options currently on the table and how the town’s task force plans to proceed.
An estimated budget of $61,150 to create a hazard mitigation plan for Middlebury, which would include an engineering analysis of the Middlebury River, has been approved on the state level. If the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agrees with Vermont Emergency Management (the state administer of the funds), then FEMA will provide $45,863, and the town will be responsible for a 25 percent match of $15,288.
This money would be allocated from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and the plan that it would fund would help Middlebury obtain future aid for projects, like river alteration work.
Unfortunately for Middlebury, FEMA will not fund repair of the town floodwall, which was compromised and then armored after the August flood. Sheldon said, FEMA did not consider the wall an eligible infrastructure expense.
The town also hoped to receive funding from a Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife Watershed Planning Grant. But the department didn’t award the grant because the Army Corps’ bar on river work is still outstanding, and the state officials didn’t think the proposed project would result in the desired level of habitat restoration, said Sheldon.
While conversation remained civil on Thursday night, neighbors and others in attendance expressed competing views.
On one side of the aisle, property owners want quick action taken to protect their homes from future flooding. On the other side, locals want a thorough analysis of the river and an organized plan to address flood hazards and strategies for mitigating them.
The latter of the two views seems to be prevailing.
Over the past six months, river scientists and experts have repeatedly said that making river alterations without a full understanding of the river’s dynamics after Irene could create adverse affects and exacerbate flooding. Furthermore, the town is currently unable to make river alterations because of federal order barring it from doing so.
If the town gets funding from FEMA, Sheldon said bids for an engineering analysis would go out immediately. The analysis will contribute to a plan that she said seeks to reduce physical harm to residents, improve property protection and rein in long-term infrastructure costs. The plan would base its findings on science and would aim to create a shared vision for the river that’s based on scientific analysis. An alteration project would also seek to restore the stream’s terrestrial habitat, improve flood and sediment storage capacity and reduce bank erosion.
With funding, the town would move ahead with planning this year and likely put a restoration project in motion next year.
In order get the town’s zoning up to FEMA standards — which will in turn make future mitigation funding more easily attainable — the town is looking to redraw “Flood Hazard Areas” and “Fluvial Erosion Hazard Areas” in East Middlebury, essentially replacing and updating the “Flood Hazard” section of the town’s zoning regulations.
These expanded planning zones will reduce further development along the river corridor, said Sheldon.
The Middlebury Planning Commission is holding a public hearing about these proposed zones on Monday, April 16, at 7 p.m. at the East Middlebury United Methodist Church.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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