BRATTLEBORO—Every time there’s a particularly heavy downpour, drivers coming down Flat Street may find Stanley Lynde knee-deep in water, directing traffic.
Lynde’s motorcycle repair shop, Lynde Motorsports, is on the little stretch of Flat Street that lies between the two branches of the north side of Elm Street.
“There’s a water problem that’s been there since 19-... who knows?” Lynde told Board members at the June 20 Selectboard meeting. Lynde told them he has pictures of flooding at 79 Flat Street from the Hurricane of 1938, and from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
When Lynde bought the building in 2001, nobody told him about the flooding.
Then again, flooding didn’t happen that often.
Lynde Motorsports was one of the businesses buried under inches of silt and muddy water during Tropical Storm Irene. Since then, not counting Irene, Lynde estimates his shop has flooded 15 times.
On June 19, the day before the Selectboard meeting, a band of severe thunderstorms brought mudslides and flash floods to the Brattleboro area. And, just like during every other severe storm, a large portion of that rainwater ended up in front of — and in — Lynde’s shop.
“The biggest damage we had” during the June 19 storm, Lynde said, was because of cars going by, “because [the drivers] see this huge mud puddle and go 50 [mph]. The water was at my knees, but when the cars went through,” the wake the vehicles created brought the water up to Lynde’s waist.
“I figured out how to keep the water out using tarps and sealing the doors, but people driving by too fast send waves into the shop,” Lynde told The Commons.
Selectboard member John Allen happened by that day, and saw the “wake” in action. “I was so mad when that car went by and just inundated his shop,” Allen told his colleagues.
“It’s not cheap stuff” Lynde has in there, Allen added.
Lynde wanted to alert the Selectboard and “start the process of whatever we have to do” to fix this problem, he said.
“The Selectboard and Jan [Anderson, executive secretary in the town manager’s office] and Elwell were great. They totally get it,” Lynde told The Commons.
While they work it out, the Department of Public Works and the Selectboard gave Lynde permission to block that small section of Flat Street with his truck whenever a heavy downpour threatens his shop.
Town officials also gave him a set of traffic cones to enforce the road closure. “I must be someone important!” Lynde said with a laugh.
“I don’t get worked up anymore,” he said. “I’m used to it.”
“I told the Selectboard, ‘I’m not here to complain, but to get things done,’” Lynde said. “You gotta start some place. Like the rain, it starts with a drop.”
Geography and physics
Lynde Motorsports is at the mercy of geography and physics.
“It is the very lowest spot in downtown, and water will drain down. It’s a challenging spot,” Town Manager Peter B. Elwell told The Commons. “It will flood dramatically.”
“The real problem is, all the water from Haviland’s [the auto repair garage at the corner of Green Street and Western Avenue] to [Flat Street], comes down here. A 10-inch pipe cannot take in 30,000 gallons of water. Also, all the water from Canal Street comes here,” Lynde said.
“It takes a fairly hard rain” to flood his shop, he said, but with climate change bringing more severe storms more often, and with more of the town’s terrain getting paved over in the last 70 years to accommodate more automobiles, there’s more water and fewer places for it to go.
Steve Barrett, Director of Public Works, said that historically, the area that caused the DPW the most concern during heavy rains was West Brattleboro, especially near the Whetstone Brook.
“We just didn’t have the flooding on Flat Street,” until about 15 years ago, said Barrett, who added, “It’s happened more in the last few years than in the 38 years I’ve been here.”
“That wasn’t the focus when we had flooding [in the past], but it sure is now,” he said.
“Now,” Barrett said, “we’re seeing the 1 or 2 inches per hour rains that we used to just talk about.”
Climate change is here, “and we have to change with it,” he said.
Old infrastructure, new problems
“We’ve tried to make some changes that will affect Lynde’s shop,” Barrett said.
When the DPW rebuilt the Elm Street bridge at the Canal Street intersection a few years ago, they sloped the roadway and increased the drainage capacity to disperse the high volumes of water coming from Canal Street.
The DPW also installed double storm drains — instead of the usual single drain — at three places they identified as troubled areas: on Canal Street in front of Gouger’s Market, in front of Lynde Motorsports, and at the intersection of Green and School streets.
“It didn’t solve that problem, but it has to help,” Barrett said.
“The infrastructure in New England towns is old, and it can be a challenge to upgrade,” said Barrett, who noted, “we have the same infrastructure, but different needs, especially with water runoff.”
“Cost is a factor. But, I don’t mean to downplay the cost and inconvenience to those affected,” he added. “It’s a challenge every community has: what to fix.”
When asked how a project gets on the town’s roster, Barrett said he and his staff analyze all of the public works needs — which are many, considering Brattleboro has 80 miles of roads, and 30 of those aren’t paved — then they create and review the next fiscal year’s capital plan.
Then, the capital plan goes through a series of further reviews and adjustments: first to the town manager, then to the Selectboard, then finally, to Representative Town Meeting.
Things like retaining walls falling into roads and sidewalks, or roads with more potholes than pavement, may take priority.
Town officials have known since Irene that Flat Street needed some drainage help.
In 2006, when the New England Youth Theater was planning their new building on the corner of Elm and Flat Streets, the DPW investigated taking advantage of the dig to put in some flood-mitigation structures, Barrett said.
But Barrett said the town couldn’t meet the deadline, and the attempt failed.
The engineering studies are still there, Barrett said, and the next step is to look at them to see what the town can do. “This will give us a concept that will turn into a project,” he said.
Until then, Barrett and Lynde have kept in touch, and Lynde can use the barricades to keep vehicles off that short stretch of Flat Street when the water rises. “He can close the road to protect the property in that proximity,” Barrett said.
Barrett agreed that the solution is a marathon, not a sprint.
“There are so many moving parts to this,” he said. “We have to hire engineers to upgrade and find alternatives for the Flat Street drainage. Can the water maybe take another path? I don’t know.”
What Barrett does know is “Public Works is not going to sit here and do nothing. We want good drainage and smooth roads. This is what we do. We’ve talked about this situation and we’re going to do what we need to do.”