BRATTLEBORO—“It was surreal,” says Melrose Terrace resident Laura Austan.
Austan and her fellow residents evacuated the Brattleboro Housing Authority’s Melrose apartments the day before Tropical Storm Irene swept through Vermont nine weeks ago.
“We had a couple of hours to get ready,” Austan wrote in an email. “So, I got some things together to take, and picked some things up from the floor.”
The 17-building affordable housing complex geared toward low-income seniors and people with disabilities sustained flood damage when Irene’s rains engorged the Whetstone Brook, submerging swaths of West Brattleboro.
“We thought we’d be out for only a couple of days,” Austan says.
Now Austan does not know if she will return to her home.
The housing authority received a letter Oct. 14 from the Town Zoning Administrator Brian Bannon, who wrote that five of Melrose’s buildings had sustained “substantial damage” and would not receive permits for the repair work.
The BHA has appealed the decision to the Development Review Board.
Austan moved into Melrose last April after a two-year wait. She previously lived in the Brooks House on Main Street, and moved to West Brattleboro right before the historic building caught fire April 17.
“I’d only been there [Melrose] a few months, so I was not so much part of a ‘community’ there,” says Austan. “I wasn’t even unpacked yet.”
For Austan, getting information about returning home to Melrose has been frustrating.
“Every time they [BHA] thought things would get the all clear, they didn’t,” she says. “At the start, things looked easier than it all became.”
Applying for permits
Built in 1962, Melrose Terrace existed before the town or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mapped flood zones.
According to Brattleboro Planning Services Director Roderick Francis, a portion of Melrose stands inside the town’s special flood hazard area (SFHA). Buildings within this area are subject to the town’s SFHA ordinance.
Francis said the ordinance’s “overall intent” is to prevent home construction in the “floodway,” an area of the SFHA likely bear the brunt of the river’s current during a flood.
The ordinance intends for structures in the “flood fringe,” an area likely to have rising water, to have the first floor above the level of water estimated for a 100-year flood.
“These [ordinance] requirements reflect [National Flood Insurance Program] risk assessment and are intended to avoid repeated loss of property, life, and endangerment of emergency personnel,” said Francis.
Properties within the SFHA require town-issued permits when owners undertake repair or improvement work.
The Brattleboro Housing Authority dug in after Irene, cleaning and rebuilding the wet or damaged buildings.
“During the week after the storm, the BHA was told directly by town officials that it did not need any building permits and could and should begin cleanup and repair immediately,” said BHA Executive Director Chris Hart.
Three weeks later, the Planning Services Department told the housing authority to obtain building permits, said Hart.
Going by the (two) numbers
The BHA’s permits were approved, said Bannon, except for five buildings that he determined to have flood damage exceeding the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) “substantial damage” mark.
According to FEMA, if a building suffers damage over 50 percent of its fair market value, it must comply with local zoning and flood prevention upgrades.
Francis said part of the planning office’s determination was based on the fact that the BHA submitted two sets of figures to the Planning Department.
“These [rebuilding] figures differ significantly from those provided to us initially,” said Francis in an email.
One purpose of the DRB hearing is “to require the BHA to explain to the DRB how they had arrived at the new figures,” said Francis.
In Hart’s opinion, the flood damage at the five Melrose buildings did not sustain substantial damage. She also said the BHA submitted “real numbers” to the town.
Hart said the housing authority’s contractor, John Brunelle of Brunelle and Son of Brattleboro, plans to attend the hearing and explain why his repair estimate changed.
Brunelle compiled his first estimates within a week of Irene, said Hart.
“He’s a very detailed and methodical fellow,” she said.
That first week, the BHA also had water and fire restoration contractors like ServPRO cleaning damaged apartments, Hart said.
By early October, Brunelle redrafted his estimate when he had a better understanding of specific damage to tackle, Hart explained.
Originally, she said, Brunelle thought whole systems like the electric wiring needed replacing. Later, he found the flood damage was not as extensive as he thought.
Hart said the BHA continues to gather information and materials for the Nov. 7 hearing.
One piece of new information, she said, came during a meeting with Town Manager Barbara Sondag. According to Hart, Sondag told her that the town has decided against hiring an independent contractor to go over BHA’s numbers.
Sondag confirmed Hart’s account this week, saying that the town’s decision had as much to do with contractor availability as it did with the logistics of gaining access to the private buildings.
According to Hart, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has also inspected Melrose.
HUD conducted an initial environmental review of the damaged structures, said Hart. The review revealed “no structural damage,” leading HUD representatives to think the buildings do not meet FEMA’s “substantially damaged” threshold.
According to Hart, HUD told her the buildings “are as structurally sound as they were in [early] August.”
Sondag said that the zoning administrator, whose job duties are defined by statute, rejected permits for the five Melrose buildings based on the housing authority’s initial figures.
According to Sondag, the initial repair estimates placed the building’s damage level at 100 percent of their assessed values.
The BHA’s second assessment completed by Dart Everett, said Sondag, showed that the estimated cost of repairing four of the buildings exceeded FEMA’s 50-percent mark.
Sondag said the process the town has followed for permitting the Melrose buildings is the one it follows for everyone.
“It’s unfortunate the process takes time while people are out of their homes,” she said.
Calls to members of the DRB were not returned by press time.
The BHA stopped work on the five most damaged buildings, and Hart does not know when they will open again, even if they receive permits.
Hart told the 26 displaced Melrose residents that their future housing options will depend on the DRB hearing’s outcome.
“It’s very hard for everybody to understand why the town would do this,” she said.
Hart added that the DRB hearing might “give people another way to learn why the town has taken this position [denying permits].”
Housing authority staff expect to have a structured plan to announce to residents the week after Nov. 7.
Hart said the housing authority has created a “priority list” for placement in some Melrose units that have recently become available.
The housing authority will also offer space in its other properties such as Hayes Court and the Richards Building on Western Avenue, just down the road from Melrose.
An Oct. 28 fire in the Samuel Elliot Apartments on Elliot Street that claimed the life of Muriel B. Franklin, 76, has put that building “out of order” for new tenants at this time, she said.
Hart said the housing authority is also formally changing the Section 8 housing vouchers for displaced residents. The change will help the residents move to the top of the waiting list.
Three residents have already claimed these vouchers and moved from Melrose, she said.
Limbo: nine weeks and counting
While the town, the Planning Services Department, DRB, and housing authority evaluate Melrose Terrace, residents like Austan wait.
Austan says she has returned to her apartment twice since Irene: once to view the damage and once to remove her possessions.
First, after leaving Melrose, Austan bunked with friends in Brattleboro. Now she is staying in Maine.
Austan says she has experienced feelings of frustration, sadness, anger, worry, and disgust.
“It’s not easy being in limbo. Or being homeless,” she writes from Maine.
From her vantage point, Austan interprets the Melrose situation as a big question mark.
“I still don’t know what happened,” she says. “Somewhere in the process, someone didn’t do something that should’ve been done and it turned into a ball of confusion. It’s tough to get the facts.”
“As for the outcome, I’d like to see the buildings rehabbed and everyone back in their homes,” Austan says.