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FEMA, state, and town officials discuss permitting

WILMINGTON—Town officials want to make the rebuilding process easier for downtown businesses and residents by streamlining the official permitting process for buildings within the special flood hazard area (SFHA).

Business owners, residents, and contractors met Monday night with town officials, state, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representatives to ask about the requirements for rebuilding their properties.

On Aug. 28, Tropical Storm Irene flooded downtown Wilmington, washing out roads and swamping buildings. The downtown flooding surpassed the previous high-water mark set during the Hurricane of 1938.

A number of criteria will come into play for obtaining permits like level of damage and historical significance, said Zoning Administrator Alice Herrick.

Selectboard Chair Thomas P. Consolino said the town has attempted to streamline the permitting process so businesses can open their doors quickly.

The Selectboard will also vote on interim emergency bylaws in the next few days. The interim bylaws will vest Herrick with the authority to issue permits administratively in certain cases, bypassing the Development Review Process.

The streamlined process will apply only to properties standing in the SFHA, said Herrick.

“One key element in determining the paperwork [for the permitting] process is determining the [zoning] district your property is in,” said Consolino.

FEMA pins properties with the “substantially damaged” label, based on a case-by-case formula that calculates the property’s assessed value and flood damage.

If the damage totals 50 percent of FEMA’s formula, the agency will give the owner $30,000 above any insurance claim.

“It takes a lot of damage to hit that 50 percent threshold,” said James Bruni, a FEMA national flood insurance flood management supervisor.

According to Herrick, she can issue permits administratively for buildings that fall below FEMA’s “substantially damaged” threshold. Buildings meeting the substantially damaged criteria will still need to go through the regular DRB process, said Herrick.

Also, if these substantially damaged buildings belong to the historical downtown district, owners will need to consider the structure’s historical character as part of the rebuilding process.

Bruni said FEMA inspectors plan on inspecting the more damaged properties in town starting next week. Property owners who think they meet the 50 percent threshold should contact Herrick.

But, cautioned Bruni, buildings that receive the 50 percent designation will also have more rebuilding and code requirements placed on them.

Herrick suggested property owners with historic buildings contact her with questions. In general, she said, requirements and codes for historical buildings will differ from those that apply to contemporary structures.

Rebecca Pfeiffer, community assistance coordinator for Vermont’s Flood Plain Management Division, echoed Herrick.

Pfeiffer said one role of the state’s flood program is acting as a go-between with the federal and municipal governments. She noted historical structures don’t need to meet some flood mitigation requirements, like elevating the building above the mapped flood plain.

But owners might want to consider other measures to reduce future flood damage, such as elevating electrical panels, or attaching boilers to basement joists, she said.

One audience member said he had tried to flood-proof his downtown property years ago, but was thwarted by the Act 250 environmental process. He asked about what owners can do when faced with a similar quandary.

Pfeiffer said that her branch of the Agency of Natural Resources, the agency that oversees both the flood and Act 250 regulations, would comment on the rebuilding plans to “try to find a happy medium that will protect the building, but find the best compromise.”

Some downtown business owners felt exasperated that the state and federal representatives expect them to wait for permits before doing the work that will reopen the doors to their livelihoods.

“You’re talking to us as if we’re sitting on our rear ends,” said Lilias MacBean Hart, owner of Quaigh Design Centre.

Hart reopened her store on Saturday.

“Permitting will have to come after, not before” rebuilding our businesses, she said.

Pfeiffer responded saying for the community to retain national flood insurance, owners who jump ahead of permitting may “need to go back to make changes” in case of code violations.

Another downtown business owner said she understood the state’s position but also agreed with Hart.

“We have to do it [rebuild] now and get it done,” the owner said. “This is how we make our money.”

Herrick said, “We need to be aware of reality, and yours is to get going quickly.”

She said the town knew that some owners had started work without permits.

But going forward, Herrick said, the town wants to ensure owners have permits, which they will need if owners wanted to refinance or sell their properties.

“But some [owners] may put themselves at risk because they did not do mitigation measures properly,” she said. “It is a risk that you take.”

To help downtown businesses financially, Consolino said, the Selectboard voted last week to waive all flood-related permit fees, including sign ordinances.

The town clerk also agreed to waive all recording fees for documents related to Irene.

Wilmington property owners should contact Zoning Administrator Alice Herrick at 802-464-8591.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #120 (Wednesday, September 28, 2011).

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