The Commons
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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

The Whetstone Brook flows beside Melrose Terrace in West Brattleboro. During Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28, the brook overflowed its banks and damaged 26 apartments.

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In limbo

Residents of 26 units displaced; Brattleboro cites FEMA policy in stopping repairs on Melrose Terrace apartments

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Originally published in The Commons issue #124 (Wednesday, October 26, 2011).


WEST BRATTLEBORO—Nearly eight weeks ago, Melrose Terrace residents evacuated their homes as Tropical Storm Irene’s rains swelled Whetstone Brook and sent it over its banks.

The 26 residents displaced by Irene have been staying with family or friends or in hotels, said Christine Hart, executive director of the Brattleboro Housing Authority (BHA), which manages Melrose Terrace and five other properties.

Melrose caters to elderly and disabled individuals and the BHA is now paying the bill for most of the temporary housing.

And that’s where they will have to stay, in the wake of the town’s determination on Oct. 14 that the damage to five of the 17 buildings in the complex is too extensive to issue building permits for the repairs.

Noting that she has dealt with screaming and weeping families as a result of the determination, Hart said that one displaced resident said to her, “Oh, my God, I’m homeless, aren’t I?”

On Nov. 7, the BHA will come before the Development Review Board (DRB) to appeal the Zoning Administrator’s initial decision.

Immediately after Irene, said Hart, the town told her that the BHA did not need permits, and to start rebuilding, anticipating the town would later award building permits.

Three weeks after the storm, however, the town told the Authority it needed permits because of the town’s participation in the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), said Hart.

The BHA did not anticipate the town determining that the buildings would exceed the 50-percent “substantial damage” threshold set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers the NFIP.

If a building needs repairs estimated to cost more than 50 percent of its fair market value, by FEMA standards, it is substantially damaged, and its owner must comply with local zoning and flood prevention upgrade rules.

The town has determined 26 apartments sustained substantial damage. If the town’s ruling holds, the Melrose Terrace residents who lived in those units might never return home.

According to a FEMA representative, a municipality determines a building’s 50-percent threshold based on a FEMA survey of the damage and the town’s assessment of the property’s value.

When asked if a town needs to use the data from FEMA’s survey to make the 50-percent-threshold determination, Marilyn Hilliard, a FEMA emergency mitigation branch director based in Burlington, initially said that the town could not have made such a determination without the information contained in the FEMA survey.

Hilliard later said that her previous statement actually pertained to the fact that Brattleboro did not make the determination using the FEMA data because it had not received the federal agency’s data until after she spoke with The Commons on Monday, Oct. 24.

When making a 50 percent determination, said Hilliard, “FEMA methodology is recommended but not required.”

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