By Eric Francis
“Everyone gripes about government spending but they forget that all of this disaster assistance is their dollars too, so at a certain point you’ve got to protect the public purse,” Woodstock and Reading Representative Alison Clarkson said late Tuesday after attending a meeting of the Post-Irene Property Task Force at the Statehouse, concluding, “To spend to rebuild in a flood hazard zone is just a foolish waste of public money.”
With the resumption of Vermont’s part-time Legislature now just a little over a month away, numerous questions remain about how best to restore damaged homes and infrastructure around the state in such a way that they aren’t just being set up for another expensive set of failures when heavy rains swell creeks and rivers the next time.
“Every week I am learning more about the impact of this disaster on people’s finances, on banking, on mortgages, on zoning, on flood plains. It’s been just amazing,” Clarkson said of the near-daily series of meetings that are taking place across the state ahead of the legislative session, before adding, “I think we have an opportunity to think bigger about how we solve some of these issues and not just put more Band-Aids on them.”
“We are doing this so if there are statutory changes that need to be made we can have them drafted and ready to go,” Clarkson explained.
“The Vermont Law School is working on suggested state regulations pertaining to rebuilding in flood plains.
This is an opportunity for us to fix some things but we have some major choices… whether this is a municipal zoning issue or whether we need statewide regulation of floodplains.”
“For me, going municipality-by-municipality when you are talking about floodplains is a joke because the river doesn’t know what town it’s in,” Clarkson said. “The river and the watershed are a whole. I think the legislators get that now, which they wouldn’t have a year ago.”
One thing that is unlikely to survive Hurricane Irene going forward is the notion of the “hundred year flood line” that was marked on in recent decades on all the topographic maps provided to Vermont towns by FEMA.
“The 500 year flood was the limit of their designation but this Irene event was three-to-four over the hundred year designation and extended beyond the 500 year event in lots of areas,” noted Woodstock Town Planner Michael Brands. “I’ve had a lot of people coming in telling me, ‘They say I should have had flood insurance but I’m not in the zone’ and no, they are not in the zone, but to re-map all that now would be extremely costly,” Brands said.
It would be great to “just follow the debris lines” and sketch out a new flood map with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight but “for a community to do that while we are racing around fixing roads and bridges is the last thing on our minds,” Brands said.
“Should we even be building in floodplains anymore?” Clarkson wondered, “And are we looking at the hundred year floodplain or the 500-year floodplain? It makes a difference if you believe in climate change and that more extreme weather may happen now. If these things are going to occur with more frequency then we need to be much tougher about what we allow to be built into our floodplain.
“I’m sorry, but one of my jobs is to protect my constituent’s pockets and to put good money in after bad seems to me to be completely senseless,” Clarkson said.
The amendments to state law being looked at now seek to clarify which authorities are responsible for regulating development within flood prone and flood designated hazard areas. “The challenge is especially figuring out what kinds of development has been exempted in statutes from municipal zoning review,” Clarkson said, “Right now it’s a patchwork but the floodplain ought to be treated in a uniform consistent way.”
Brands said that at present, “Agricultural exemptions are probably the biggest hole (in the regulations),” but he also noted, “One thing that I find bizarre is you are allowed to place septic systems in flood zones. Even a ‘mound system’ can be placed in floodplain.”
In West Woodstock down in the heavily damaged trailer park steps have already been taken to address the new understanding as to just how far up the Ottauquechee can surge.
“In the mobile home park Irene hit and went two feet above the hundred year flood mark, almost to the 500 year flood mark,” Clarkson said. “Under the current regulations the town could have permitted those homes going back in at the hundred year mark again but they didn’t.”
“The park management and the town both agreed that we should build to a new moral standard really – which is the actual flood mark, because it will come again and it would be unconscionable now really to put it back where it was. So all the mobile homes that are going back in are being raised to the new height through a combination of building up the land and putting them on cement pads,” Clarkson said, noting that new trailer foundation pads are being provided by the Woodstock Area Relief Fund which had now raised nearly $400,000 since it began on Day 3 of the Irene recovery effort.
For other residents and businesses across the region who have suffered such complete damage that it makes little sense to even try to reconstruct what previously, there is a something of a last resort way out, which is FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Program. It pays 75 percent of the cost of either raising and moving a structure above or out of the floodplain or it can provide for the complete removal of structures with federal funding paying the owner back 75 percent of the pre-Irene value of the building.
Some residents in Quechee, West Hartford, and Bridgewater have already expressed interest in taking part in the program but anyone who even thinks they might be interested needs to notify their town, the state, and FEMA as soon as possible in order to see if they qualify when the program starts to sort out who gets the competitive grants late in January.
“I don’t think we have any homes in Woodstock where we are looking at getting rid of the home altogether. Basically people can’t walk away because that would be such a monetary loss. We have some people that are interested in moving their houses back a bit and mitigating that hazard but I’m not sure they are going to be as interested when they find out they are getting 25 percent of that bill,” Clarkson noted.
The question of what happens to mortgages on houses around the state that are simply gone is, “That piece we are going to try and fix with this task force,” Clarkson said. “I think where people have lost both the land and the house banks are going to be eating a lot of that because we can’t afford to have Vermonters going bankrupt and how can a bank in all good conscience ask for a mortgage on something that doesn’t exist?”
This article first appeared in the December 1st edition of the Vermont Standard.