Newton Road residents look to state officials for flooding options

BRANDON — At least one family on Newton Road in Brandon is ready for a buy out.
Mike and Stacey Lee were among roughly 65 people at a Sept. 18 public meeting at the Brandon Town Hall to get information from a host of state officials about the continued flooding issue on Newton Road and what the options are for homeowners there.
“I’ve got my keys ready,” Mike Lee said during the comment period. “I’ve thrown away kids’ projects. I’ve thrown away wedding photos. I can handle floods. It’s the waiting and not knowing that’s torture. You think about it driving to work. You think about it mowing your lawn. I’m ready. Sign me up.”
The Lees will likely be the first Newton Road family to start the buy out process, one of the many topics discussed at the meeting. On hand were a group of state officials, led by the Vermont Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation Emily Boedecker. Also on hand were DEC Floodplain Manager Dave Rosa, Former Brandon Selectman and DEC Watershed Coordinator Ethan Swift, River Corridor Easement official Shannon Pytlik, DEC River Engineer Josh Carvajal, and Vermont Emergency Management Hazard Mitigation Officer Lauren Oates.
Oates coordinates the buy out process between the town, the homeowner and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program.
There was a lot of anger in the meeting room, as many residents blamed the removal of the old Tubbs building for making the flood hazard from the Neshobe River even worse along Newton Road.
But officials said that the building, owned by Karl Fjeld, who opted to take a buy out from FEMA after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, had to be demolished or the buy out wouldn’t have happened.
But despite what officials said, all the Newton Road residents said the flood on this past July was worse than 2011 because that building was gone.
“You scientists can talk all you want,” one woman said angrily. “What are you people doing to prevent this from happening again? You’re not going to give us what our property is worth. I don’t care what you say, you don’t know what it’s like to see every goddamn thing you own ruined!”
The flood caused by Tropical Storm Irene flooded homes along Newton Road and damaged the roadway in 2011, but the flood that occurred on July 1 caused even more damage. The water was more widespread, completely destroyed the road, and all of the houses on south side of Newton Road were completely flooded. The houses on the north side were also damaged, although not as severely.
Two 100-year flood events in six years have made Newton Road homeowners hungry for answers and bitter about how the state has handled the issue.
The problem is that Newton Road lies in a known Neshobe River floodplain, and as officials have repeatedly said, there is not much the state can do to prevent future floods.
That point was reiterated again and again at the Sept. 18 meeting.
“There are limited options to manage a river,” Boedecker said. “The really harsh reality is that whatever we do, there will be another flood. I would be doing you all a great disservice if I told you we could armor the riverbanks and prevent future floods. We can’t.”
The Neshobe along Newton Road has been flooding for over 100 years, and Swift displayed black and white photos showing flood damage in the neighborhood from 1913, 1927 and 1938.
A 1977 FEMA flood map shows the floodplain and the flood hazard areas along Newton Road. The ongoing flood threat from the Neshobe River exists because the river is so dynamic in that area, Swift said. Stormwater comes down the mountain from Goshen, a steep decline, and is funneled into the Neshobe River in Forest Dale, and wants to spread out once the land flattens out along Newton Road. This area is called an alluvial fan, where sediment and debris is crossed and built up by streams and rivers that spread out over a plain.
The alluvial fan along Newton Road is not allowed to spread until the Nop corn field on the east end of the road, past all of the homes. The build-up of sediment and debris also blocks water flow and contributes to flooding.
Coupled with climate change and an increase in the frequency and severity of torrential rainstorms as we’ve seen over the last decade, Swift said floods will only become more common.
Even in the back of the FEMA handbook on retrofitting structures to mitigate flood damage, Rosa pointed out a caveat regarding homes that lie within an alluvial fan because it is such an unpredictable flooding area.
“The guidance is limited when it comes to an alluvial fan area,” he said.
So, what are the options for homeowners? Short of selling a home to the government and leaving the area, raising one’s home above the base flood level is the best preventative measure to take, said Carvajal, the DEC engineer.
Oates said DEC has a program to help homeowners pay to have their homes raised.
If homeowners actually own a part of the river, they also have the option of removing up to 50 cubic yards of material from the river, above the water line, to improve water flow. The stipulation is that the material has to either be reused elsewhere on the property, or hauled away and not re-sold, all at the homeowner’s expense.
If a home has a basement: Fill it in and replace it with a crawlspace with flood vents that allow the floodwater to move through the building. Basements fill with water and destroy furnaces and other utility equipment, and increase the amount of pressure on walls and floors, which can cause the entire foundation to fail. By moving utilities to a high floor and creating the crawl space with flood vents, the home and utilities will sustain less flood damage.
Funding to help homeowners pay for these kinds of alterations can be obtained through the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
Then there is a buy out, where FEMA buys the home through the town and demolishes it, and future building on that site is prohibited.
FEMA will pay 75 percent of the project cost, which includes buying the home at fair market value and the demolition of the home. The homeowner must come up with the remaining 25 percent, either cash or in-kind, such as allowing a local fire department to use the home as a controlled burn exercise, thus saving the cost of demolition.
The buy out process begins with an appraisal of what the property was worth before the July 1 flood. Then the town and the homeowner sign a voluntary transaction agreement. The town obtains the relevant permits, and the town attorney drafts the closing documents. The property then transfers from the homeowner to the town. A lead and asbestos check and remediation is performed, if applicable. The structure is then demolished, and the property is seeded and graded. The lot then remains open in perpetuity.
Oates said that since Tropical Storm Irene, 150 Vermont properties have been purchased by FEMA and demolished.
“Those homeowners no longer have concerns about flooding or their insurance,” she said. “And the river has room to go where it needs to go.”
She said there are three FEMA grant programs open for applicants right now, one with an Oct. 27 deadline. It should be noted that the buy out program is completely voluntary.
But there is one big drawback, and that is time. Oates said processing buy out applications can take six to 18 months, or longer.
“It is slow,” she said. “It is very, very slow. It’s not fast.”
Karl Fjeld was on hand and said his buy out process began in 2012 and was not completed until 2016.
Brandon Selectman Doug Bailey, a retired banker, offered a few other pieces of information. He said even if someone doesn’t have a mortgage, they can still buy flood insurance. He also offered to help any residents who asked about the paperwork for the buy out or mitigation processes. He also addressed the grey mood among the group at the meeting.
“There’s a lot of anger in this room, but these are not the people you should be mad at,” he said, pointing to the state officials. “They’re here to help you through the process.”
Mike Lee spoke again, saying he was grateful for the meeting.
“First of all, I want to thank the town of Brandon for setting this up,” he said. “We’re good people. We work hard. Any one of us would give you the shirt off our back. We’re just frustrated, and we’re passionate about our homes. We’re clawing for information and we need it.”

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