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East Middlebury residents critical of proposed flood zone

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard is seeking some changes in a proposed zoning designation for an area along the Middlebury River following an outcry from East Middlebury residents who contend the new zone will limit development and hurt their property values.
The planning commission began working on the proposed zoning amendments in 2010, following a Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) review by the town’s administration of its flood hazard area regulations under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
The NFIP requires that towns maintain some minimum zoning laws in order to be eligible for Federal Emergency Management flood disaster aid, according to Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington. He added the ANR reviewers recommended that Middlebury tighten up some regulations in order to continue to meet NFIP eligibility standards.
One of the recommended adjustments: Creation of a Fluvial Erosion Hazard (FEH) zone that Dunnington said would complement existing flood plain management along some of the Middlebury River, including near the Grist Mill Bridge at the east end of East Middlebury.
Property owners in this FEH zone would be allowed, with permission of the town zoning officer, to make “minor” improvements to existing structures — ones that do not increase the footprint of buildings by more than 600 square feet) — and major interior upgrades.
But the FEH zone would prohibit such things as:
• New residential or non-residential principal structures — including the placement of manufactured or mobile homes, travel trailers of campers or other vehicles used as residences and storage trailers.
• Junk, or junk storage.
• New fill, except as necessary to elevate existing structures above the base flood elevation.
The ordinance would provide for a conditional use review that allow for new accessory structures in the FEH zone, if they are within 50 feet of the principal building, are no closer to the river, and do not exceed 600 square feet.
“People in East Middlebury shouldn’t experience too much of a difference,” Dunnington said at an Aug. 28 Middlebury selectboard hearing of the impact of the proposed new regulations. “It allows for maintenance and minor improvements. There is a permitting process for it.”
But more than a dozen East Middlebury residents turned out at the Aug. 28 hearing to weigh in on the proposed FEH zone. A recurring complaint: The new zone would  inhibit them from substantially improving their properties and therefore reduce their property values.
Luther Tenny, who owns property just downstream of the Grist Mill Bridge off Route 125, said, “As a current homeowner and future seller … it’s going to be very hard to have someone interested in this property knowing that right off the bat, they can’t do anything with it.”
Grist Mill Road resident Peter Dempewolff echoed that sentiment.
“The value of my property is diminished because of the extra regulations put on it,” Dempewolff said. “That’s a concern of mine.”
East Main Street resident Jason Larocque acknowledged his property would not be affected by the new FEH zone. But he said he was concerned about the impact on his neighbors, and recommended that the town pause before approving the new zone.
 “Since it would have such a drastic impact on properties being added to the FEH, it makes sense not to adopt this and deal with mapping later,” Larocque said. “This is kind of like saying, ‘Let’s move on with health care reform and we’ll tell you what it means later.’ I think it’s short-sighted. I think there are real impacts on property owners that fall within this zone.”
Other residents said the town should recognize the financial hardship imposed on some property owners by the FEH zone.
“You are asking property owners and residents that currently have developable land that you’re going to put their land in an FEH zone, that they can no longer develop it,” East Main Street resident Todd Desabrais said. “What does the town have planned for compensation, either through taxes or what have you, for the devaluing of their property?”
Ultimately, the selectboard decided they could not support the new FEH zoning ordinance as written. But they stressed they do want to salvage the proposal by trying to make it more palatable to the residents who would have to live with it. To that end, selectboard members Gary Baker, Victor Nuovo and Susan Shashok will assist town planning staff in revising the proposed ordinance and bringing it back for a future public hearing.
Shashok, an East Middlebury resident, urged her neighbors to see the some of the advantages of the proposed FEH zone.
“Adopting the FEH also opens up more money for towns to apply for, to then — because they have already identified areas of concern — get money for help,” Shashok said. “This also identifies new areas to be protected; it’s not just identifying areas to make it more difficult for everyone to improve their homes, but to protect those homes that need it the most. I think that’s important to remember.”
But selectboard Chairman Dean George said that given the neighborhood concerns, it did not make sense to approve the FEH zone as presented.
“My fear is that if we were to take an action on this tonight, it would be defeated completely,” George said. “I think it needs more work, from our perspective.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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