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A proposed floodplain could have spared Waterbury from severe flooding. It was never built

 An aerial view of flood waters surrounding train tracks and buildings
The University of Vermont
/
Courtesy
Waterbury flooded this July, though not as severely as during Tropical Storm Irene. A study commissioned by the town after Irene found that if a floodplain was built in Duxbury, the town could see dramatic flood reductions. But the project never went forward.

In the months after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed much of downtown Waterbury in 2011, experts and local officials launched an urgent search for ways to prevent similar disasters. The biggest priority was identifying ways to keep the Winooski River, which runs less than a quarter mile from downtown, from wreaking similar havoc in the future.

Experts quickly identified a straightforward project that could provide huge relief for a modest expense. They determined that a small field in neighboring Duxbury sat at a crucial spot on the river, and that building a floodplain in the field could dramatically reduce flood levels a mile away in Waterbury Village.

For $3 million, the project would reduce flooding in downtown Waterbury by as much as 12 inches and prevent millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses, officials said.

Better yet, converting the field into a floodplain didn’t require knocking down a home or any building. And Waterbury taxpayers wouldn’t suffer much of a hit — FEMA would pick up 75% of the cost, and officials hoped to secure grants to spare taxpayers the 25% local match.

“We were thrilled to have a discrete location identified and excited to begin … working with property owners and discussing more detailed engineering and eventually finding the funds to do that project,” said Lauren Oates, a former state hazard mitigation officer with Vermont Emergency Management, in a recent interview.

The Harvey family, who have owned the field in Duxbury and lived on adjacent property for more than a century, would have kept their land. They would have been paid an unspecified price for its use, or potentially received another piece of land in exchange for allowing the project to move forward.

But it never happened. The Harveys refused to cooperate. Why? They have used the field, which is less than 10 acres, to train racehorses, and feared that if it flooded more frequently, it wouldn’t be usable, Maureen Harvey told Vermont Public recently. They were also skeptical of the project’s purported benefits.

“I’m not saving the world, I'm not saving Waterbury,” Harvey said. “It's not a plan that really, I don't think, in the long term is going to do squat.”

After the Harveys refused to participate, state officials, who have the authority to seize land if it’s deemed necessary for "flood control projects," declined to use eminent domain to make the project happen.

“We're aware it's an option, but it's a fairly drastic move, which can often have a lot of unintended consequences or collateral damage,” said Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation section chief with Vermont Emergency Management.

I’m not saving the world, I'm not saving Waterbury. It's not a plan that really, I don't think, in the long term is going to do squat.
Maureen Harvey

The Harveys’ refusal to participate, and the state’s reluctance to take it via eminent domain, could be a harbinger of challenges for ambitious flood mitigation projects across Vermont as the state struggles to protect communities from severe flooding in a rapidly warming climate.

“The way things tend to work in Vermont is we don't take people's land or force them to do things on their land,” said Roy Schiff, a water resource engineer and scientist who authored the 2013 study that identified the Harveys’ field as a potential site for a floodplain.

But given the severity of climate change, some experts say the state may need to get more aggressive and potentially use eminent domain — when the government seizes private property for public use — to facilitate flood mitigation projects.

“There's no time like right now, after a state has experienced significant flooding, to look at all of the tools in the toolbox — like, what is available to us to become more prepared for the next flood that we know is coming,” said Lauren Oates, the former state hazard mitigation officer.

A big benefit

The 2013 study identified a choke point, just north of the Winooski Street bridge, where the Winooski River runs between the Harvey’s field and railroad tracks alongside Route 2.

Land on both sides of the Winooski in that location means that the river can’t spread out, which causes the water to back up — essentially creating a mini-dam that eventually releases a deluge of water. However, if Harvey's field was lowered, the river could spill onto it more frequently, which would spread out the water and reduce flooding downstream.

“The updated hydraulic modeling confirmed that lowering of the Duxbury farm fields to restore floodplain is the most effective alternative to reduce flood levels along this stretch of the Winooski River,” the study found.

Map showing the site of a potential floodplain just on the edge of Waterbury Village Historic District.
Corey Dockser
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Vermont Public, Map data ©2023 Google
A 2013 study found that reconnecting a floodplain on a farm field in Duxbury could reduce flood waters in Waterbury by 12 inches.

Many of Vermont’s rivers and streams are disconnected from their natural floodplains due to historic land management practices, like landowners draining their property and straightening waterways.That made rivers flow faster and cut deeper into the ground, which makes it harder to access natural floodplains that can help slow down the river and spread out the water. And while deeper rivers don’t flood as often, when they do, it’s more devastating.

“We traded off the function of storage,” said Mike Kline, a river ecologist who used to work for the Department of Environmental Conservation. “The water of a flood is not being dissipated, or as I like to say, attenuated, on those flat surfaces adjacent to the channel.”

More from Brave Little State: Why Vermont streams have become more powerful — and how that fuels devastating flooding

Reconnecting rivers to their floodplains is a common mitigation strategy. The town of Northfield bought and demolished seven homes along the Dog River after Irene to reconnect the river to its floodplain. Officials say that move reduced flooding by 6 inches this July.

In West Brattleboro, about 80 people living in an affordable housing development were relocated after Irene to build a floodplain. That project helped reduce local flooding, officials said this summer. And in August, the town of Brattleboro started construction of a floodplain on a former lumber storage yard. The project, which involves removing 40,000 square feet of fill to lower the land, is expected to reduce flooding downtown by several feet, town officials said.

Preliminary plans for the Waterbury project called for digging out and lowering the height of the field by an average of 7.5 feet, so the Winooski River would spill onto the field more frequently. The study estimated that flooding levels in Waterbury could be lowered by a foot, which could reduce the flood risk for more than 200 properties in Waterbury Village, and potentially save property owners money on flood insurance.

Brian Kravitz is one of those homeowners who stood to benefit. During this July’s flooding, the river spilled over its banks, crossed the corn field behind Kravitz’s house and flooded his basement nearly to the ceiling. It cost Kravitz $55,000 to repair all the damage.

“That flood mud is insidious,” Kravitz said during a recent interview at his house. “It just gets everywhere.”

A man in an orange jacket stands in a green lawn with a tan dog near his feet.
Liam Elder-Connors
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Vermont Public
Brian Kravitz lives on Randall Street in Waterbury. His house has flooded during Irene and this summer's storm.

This wasn’t the first time Kravitz has dealt with flooding. Twelve years ago when Tropical Storm Irene hit, the Winooski River poured into his home, filling the basement and dumping nearly 3 feet of water into the first floor. When the water receded, Kravitz needed to do a complete renovation.

“It was down to the studs on the entire first floor,” he said. “And then we just rebuilt it from there.”

It cost Kravitz more than $220,000 to fix his house after Irene. He got $2,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, some money from flood insurance, and the rest — about $25,000 — he paid out of pocket.

“A lot of stuff I had to put on my credit card, which I literally just dug out from probably a year or two ago,” Kravitz said. “I was underwater, and then I was underwater.”

He wasn’t alone. Irene caused $100 million in damage in Waterbury and destroyed or damaged 220 homes and businesses, including the state office complex. On Randall Street, where Kravitz lives, the floodplain project on Harvey's field was projected to reduce flooding by nearly 10 inches.

'Do a levee around Waterbury'

On a recent afternoon, Maureen Harvey bustled around the barn, feeding several retired race horses that live on the property.

“This is Noah, probably the fastest horse in the state of Vermont — or he was,” she said as she dropped an armful of hay into the stall.

Maureen, who’s the Duxbury town clerk and treasurer, has been doing more around the farm in recent years as her 93-year-old dad Jim has slowed down. Maureen’s grandfather left her dad about 300 acres when he died, and Maureen, Jim and several members of the family have houses on the land.

Maureen’s great-grandfather owned a livery stable where locals could rent horses. Her grandfather was the horse dealer for the area, and her father Jim and her uncle Harry bred and trained harness racing horses, many of whom ran at Saratoga Race Course in New York, the Waterbury Record reported in 2010.

The large field that the choke study identified as a place for a potential floodplain is a pasture for the horses, and it has a training race track. It occasionally floods already, and if the floodplain was built, it would happen more often.

“Every spring, it would be filled with sewage, and water, and mud,” Harvey said. “It wouldn't be suitable for crops, it wouldn't be suitable for animals to use, so it's basically you take that and make it worthless.”

A woman with brown hair and a blue jacket points to a field.
Liam Elder-Connors
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Vermont Public
Maureen Harvey points to the field where state and local officials wanted to build a floodplain. She said that if the project was built, her family wouldn't be able to use that property for anything.

Harvey was also skeptical that the project would have any lasting benefit.

“They're coming at us like we owe them a Band-Aid,” she said. “Thinking long-term, none of this is gonna go away … the choke point is just going to move.”

Years ago, Harvey said, her dad tried to get the state to address erosion along the banks of the Winooski on his property. According to Harvey, the state told her father he could put granite blocks along the river to keep the banks from washing away, which she said would cost $150,000 — more money than the land was worth.

“That problem, that he pointed out 20 years ago, is a systemic problem up and down the Winooski and nobody really looks at it,” Harvey said.

So when the state officials came to the family after Irene pitching the floodplain project, Harvey said it felt like they were being asked to shoulder an unfair burden.

“How would you feel if you were told that everything that you've worked for all your life and two generations before doesn't matter,” Harvey said. “If you really want to move dirt, then do a levee around Waterbury.”

To seize or not to seize

Most flood mitigation projects in the state need some sort of buy-in from property owners. Conservation organizations, like Vermont Natural Resources Council, prioritize projects where the landowner is willing to participate.

“We certainly have projects that are top of our list from a floodplain protection priority, but don't have a willing landowner,” said Karina Dailey, a restoration ecologist at VNRC. “And those are projects that we simply can't put our energy towards and move on, just because there are so many projects to get done.”

Sometimes a property owner can be convinced to participate, Dailey said. She pointed to a recent example in Williamstown, where the owner of Rouleau Pond dam agreed to remove it. The dam, which was in poor condition, was damaged during the July storm. Officials were concerned that if it failed, it could release nearly 2 million gallons of water into the village, according to the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

The dam owner hadn’t been interested in removing the dam, Dailey said, in part because they liked the pond in their backyard. But after a series of meetings, they changed their mind, she said.

“They don't want the risk or the liability of having that dam in their backyard,” Dailey said. “And they understand that having a free flowing river will allow them to sleep better at night.”

The dam’s owner did not respond to a request for comment.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont spent millions on flood mitigation after Tropical Storm Irene. Did it work?

For landowners who can’t be convinced, the state could use its authority to force a project forward. Vermont law allows the state to take property for “flood control projects” if it’s deemed necessary and if the landowner is compensated.

Eminent domain in Vermont has primarily been used for roads and public utility projects, not flood mitigation projects. But that could change as scientists predict Vermont will see more rain and floods in the future.

“You don’t generally see [eminent domain] for flood control,” said Liam Murphy, a lawyer at MSK Attorneys who’s worked on a number of eminent domain cases. “Now that it is much more in the forefront of public need, we may start seeing more of that issue coming about.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation, which has the legal authority to file an eminent domain complaint for flood projects, did not make anyone available for an interview.

In a statement, the department said there’s no record that eminent domain has been used for flood mitigation projects, and a spokesperson said DEC doesn’t have any plans to do so in the future.

“As Vermont plans for flood resiliency projects, officials will likely look to buyout programs — as needed — for homeowners in vulnerable areas,” said Stephanie Brackin, a DEC spokesperson, in an email.

The rain and flooding that followed this summer highlighted the urgent need for Vermont cities and towns to approve more aggressive flood mitigation work. In Barre, city officials have been trying to figure out how to rebuild the hard hit North End, which has flooded three times in the past dozen years.

In late October, three months after floods, a former Barre resident came before the city council to pitch a plan to help the North End residents avoid similar catastrophes.

“My ties to Barre go back a ways,” Gov. Phil Scott said as he sat in front of Barre’s mayor and six city councilors. “I was born about a thousand feet from here.”

A conceptual drawing shows a park with an angular point surrounded by several new buildings, overlaid on a black and white photo of a city from above
Black River Design
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Provided by Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
A conceptual drawing for a gateway park in Barre City by Black River Design and provided courtesy of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Under fluorescent lights in the council chambers, Scott leaned forward and outlined an ambitious redevelopment plan. The proposal focuses on a triangular swath of densely populated land between North Main Street, Beckley Street, and Fifth Street. Scott’s preliminary plan calls for demolishing or relocating most of the 80 or so homes in that area and creating a large park that would serve as a floodplain for the Stevens Branch.

The plan calls for building several large apartment complexes along the perimeter of the new park, outside of the flood zone. Scott also said there could be opportunities to build new duplexes and condos, and maybe even move some single family homes from the old neighborhood to higher ground. All together, the plan would create 225 housing units to replace the current 92 units in that neighborhood.

“Just keep an open mind about what we're proposing here,” Scott told the council. “We're trying to take care and take advantage of an opportunity that's before us — to make lemonade out of lemons.”

More from Vermont Public: Gov. Phil Scott pitches ‘something big’ for Barre City’s flood recovery

The redevelopment could cost more than $100 million. Scott said Congress recently approved federal disaster relief funding that could help Barre pay for the project. But the governor told the city council that nothing would move forward without buy-in from municipal leaders and residents.

“If there's really no interest, then we're not going to force this,” Scott said.

Barre city leaders say they’re interested in pursuing some version of what Gov. Scott pitched. But one thing is clear: There’s little interest in using eminent domain, though city councilor Teddy Waszazak acknowledged it could be used as a last resort.

“In response [to] an unprecedented disaster, we need an unprecedented response,” Waszazak said during a recent interview. “So I'm not going to rule anything out.”

Waszazak and other city leaders, like city councilor Thom Lauzon, think that many North End residents will be interested in voluntary buyouts or relocating their homes.

“I think it's way too early to be talking about eminent domain, because it's all hypothetical,” Lauzon said. “Personally, I don't think we're going to have to — I think we're going to be able to assemble enough land to have a significant effect on the North End.”

A spokesperson for Scott said eminent domain should be a “last resort,” and that the primary focus is on “voluntary buyouts and generating community buy-in for these projects.”

Vermont wasn’t always unwilling to use eminent domain for flood control projects. After the Great Flood of 1927, the state determined that it needed to build a dam to protect Montpelier from the North Branch. The project would require destroying the village of Wrightsville and exhuming and relocating 651 bodies buried in a nearby cemetery.

The North Branch Cemetery Association opposed the state’s plan, but the Public Service Commission in 1934 granted the state’s request to seize the land, concluding that the dam was “vitally necessary.”

Men on ladders work to build a dam.
Courtesy of Vermont Historical Society
Workers with the Civilian Conservation Corp build the Wrightsville Dam in 1935.

The city of Montpelier also spent $50,900 to buy some of the land in Wrightsville, though the federal government later reimbursed the city. Several of the village’s 30 structures were sold at an auction as well, according to records at the Vermont Historical Society.

“And so little Wrightsville has come and in the main has gone,” wrote Rose Lucia in Montpelier’s 1934 annual report. “In a hundred years it has seen a development from almost primal forest to prosperity, has withstood great and trying disasters by fire and by flood and now at the end of its span has been destroyed by the hand of man that other communities in the valleys below may be safe.”

The 115-foot-high Wrightsville Dam was of great interest in July’s flooding. Though the floodwaters came within inches of overflowing, the dam did its job and prevented additional destruction in Montpelier.

'No reason to proceed'

The Harveys' field wasn’t the only place around Waterbury where floodplains could be built, the 2013 study found. Experts concluded that a state-owned cornfield, and hayfield behind the state office complex, could also be lowered to create additional flood storage. But the benefits of those projects were much lower than the benefits Waterbury would receive if the Harvey property was made into a floodplain.

After four years of study and negotiation, in 2017, officials declared the project dead. The Harveys were “definitely not interested in participating,” according to meeting minutes.

“I'm not trying to lay the blame on the Harveys,” said Bill Shepeluk, Waterbury’s former town manager. “But they were not interested at all. So it kind of just closed doors, so that wasn't explored any further.”

Without the Harveys’ participation, the smaller floodplain projects on the state-owned cornfield and hayfield didn’t go forward.

“Without the big benefit, there was no reason to proceed,” said Dan Currier, a former program manager at Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission.

But Ben Rose, with Vermont Emergency Management, thinks that if the Harveys wanted to work with the state to reach a deal — something could still happen.

“I did believe at the time and continue to believe now that if there was openness to pursuing a hazard mitigation project on that site, it would allow for the lowering of the flood bench and for landowners to retain full use of enjoyment of the property for its current uses,” Rose said.

I'm not trying to lay the blame on the Harveys. But they were not interested at all. So it kind of just closed doors, so that wasn't explored any further.
Bill Shepeluk, Waterbury’s former town manager

Brian Kravitz, whose house on Randall Street in Waterbury flooded twice in the past dozen years, doesn’t think the Harveys have an obligation to allow the floodplain project to move forward on their property. But he said any amount of flood reduction in the town would help.

“Look, if it's going to happen more often, and even if you can reduce the water coming into the basement by a foot or a foot and a half — that's a lot,” Kravitz said. “It could mean not having to replace everything.”

Earlier this year, Waterbury Town Manager Tom Leitz reached out to the Harveys to see if they’d reconsider. They still weren’t interested, though Maureen Harvey says they’re not using the field to train horses at the moment.

“If I just want to grow petunias, it’s not anybody’s business,” Harvey told Vermont Public. “Why do I have to justify what we’re doing here?”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message, or contact reporter Liam Elder-Connors:

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.