WEST BRATTLEBORO—What should a town do with public housing built on a floodplain?
The answer: move the residents out and tear the houses down.
Melrose Terrace, which flooded and was evacuated during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, is managed by Brattleboro Housing Partnerships (formerly known as the Brattleboro Housing Authority). BHP oversees six other federally-subsidized public housing complexes in town.
Melrose was designed for some of the most vulnerable members of the community: the elderly and disabled. But local, state, and federal housing officials believe nobody should live there — and a recent engineering study backs that up.
Christine Hart, executive director of the partnership, appeared at the April 3 regular Selectboard meeting to discuss the future of Melrose Terrace and its residents. She was joined by Planning Director Rod Francis and Doug Osborne from Milone and MacBroom, the engineering firm that conducted the study on the property, which included revised floodplain maps indicating a greater chance of flooding in the area.
Protecting ecology and people
Hart, Francis, and Osborne were at the meeting to discuss the engineering study, the housing development, its placement in and effect on the Whetstone Brook’s flood zone, and what needs to be done to protect Melrose’s residents and the ecology of the region.
They were there, too, to ask the Selectboard’s help in securing Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for the next phases of the project.
If the Selectboard authorized the Town Manager to sign a conditional letter of map revision (or CLOMR) form, the project could move forward with federal funding, Francis said. This letter informs FEMA that the town is aware of the project, supports it, and that a change to the floodplain map will occur, Francis explained.
After a lengthy discussion, which included a PowerPoint presentation and the testimony of a resident who owns property neighboring Melrose, the Selectboard voted 4-0 to direct Town Manager Peter B. Elwell to complete the CLOMR form.
Francis gave a recap of the issue.
In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused substantial flooding to the Melrose Terrace community, resulting in extensive property damage and the evacuation of residents — some long-term — from the 80-unit complex. Afterward, BHP, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and FEMA all agreed a safer location for Melrose’s residents needed to be found.
BHP has already achieved part of that plan. With the opening of Red Clover Commons on Fairground Road last year, 55 former Melrose residents have a new, dry home away from a floodplain.
The next step is for the partnership to obtain the FEMA money to fund the demolition of the 11 vacant Melrose Terrace homes, “most of which are in the floodway and floodplain,” according to federal and state guidelines, Francis said. He explained the difference between a floodplain and a floodway: the latter “is the more dangerous of the two."
Restoring the floodplain
FEMA officials conducted a cost-benefit analysis on the housing complex, Francis said, and they determined it is worthwhile, and will cause no negative impact, to demolish the vacant homes and restore the floodplain.
The floodplain restoration plans include reconnecting just under 4.5 acres of floodplain to the Whetstone Brook, and the installation of an overflow culvert on the northern abutment of the George F. Miller Bridge, which connects Melrose Terrace to Western Avenue.
Plans also call for setting aside “a nice, big area,” located next to the stream’s regular course, that will get excavated and planted with foliage, Francis said. During floods, sediment and whole trees will get deposited there, instead of building up on the up-river side of the Route 9 bridge or floating further downstream and causing damage.
These plans, according to the engineering study, will remove the 11 most at-risk homes, reduce the flood levels by 1-3 feet in the area, and mitigate avulsion — when the brook jumps its banks and makes a new stream course. Avulsion occurred during Irene to such an extent that the channel scoured some of the foundations of the Melrose homes and created a wide trench of deep erosion.
Once the town confirms these plans and the new flood map with FEMA, via the CLOMR, FEMA will release funding from their Hazard Mitigation Program to the Brattleboro Housing Partnership, Francis said. To do this, the Selectboard must authorize Elwell to complete the form.
Hart told Board members time is of the essence. “We’ve been working closely on the project for about two years with Rod and the state emergency management and flood people,” she said, and noted the state encouraged the partnership to apply for the FEMA grant.
According to Hart, FEMA has already earmarked the money for the project. But the partnership has only until December to apply for it. If they miss out, Hart said she doesn’t know where that money will come from.
After Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor asked for clarification on the town’s responsibilities, Francis assured her the Board only has to authorize Elwell to sign the CLOMR forms to allow the process to go forward. “The town’s not going to manage the grant and the town’s not going to do the work,” he said.
Hart was clear that the remaining Melrose residents aren’t in imminent danger of getting relocated. There are still 25 occupied units, she said, “and we’re at least three years away from” vacating the people who live there.
But Melrose will eventually cease housing the elderly and disabled, or perhaps anyone. “In general, this is not land that should be used for residential purposes at all,” Hart said.
She noted HUD officials “were shocked the property was still [...] residential."
Selectboard member Tim Wessel asked the million-dollar question: Whose idea was it to put housing for elderly and disabled people in a flood zone?
The answer: HUD.
Melrose Terrace was the Brattleboro Housing Authority’s first project. According to Hart, BHA officials visited the HUD regional office in New York City in 1962. HUD’s architects took a set of housing development plans from a Virginia project, “gave them to the Brattleboro people, and said, ‘Build this,’” she said.
“Within six months of opening Melrose, it flooded,” Hart said. “It continued to flood.”