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Melrose appeal set for December

BHA, town receive continuance on Melrose repairs; two sides analyze property values, repair estimates to argue fate of four buildings

BRATTLEBORO—The Development Review Board (DRB) will hear an appeal regarding the fate of four apartments at Melrose Terrace on Dec. 5.

The appeal, originally scheduled for Monday, was postponed at the request of the Brattleboro Housing Authority and the town.

The BHA is contesting the town zoning administrator’s determination that four of its Melrose Terrace buildings exceeded the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s 50-percent damage threshold.

The determination has left 20 Melrose residents without housing.

The determination also upheld the town’s responsibility to the National Flood Insurance Program (NIFP).

Melrose Terrace, located off Western Avenue, provides housing for seniors and people with disabilities on low-incomes.

At the DRB’s Nov. 7 meeting, the board asked the BHA to return in two weeks with better cost estimates for the four buildings damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in August.

The board members felt that estimates by BHA and contractor John Brunelle required clarification before the board could vote to overturn or uphold Zoning Administrator Brian Bannon’s decision to deny the building permits.

BHA Finance Manager Mary Houghton, who attended the Nov. 21 meeting, said the housing authority asked for the continuance so it would have more time to complete the requested cost estimates.

According to Houghton, John Brunelle and Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates, PC are working together to compile cost estimates for the four buildings in question.

Houghton said the BHA “took a step back” after the previous DRB meeting to work with Stevens to determine a “real” scope of work and corresponding estimates.

She anticipated that the organization would have the estimates Dec. 5. Without the estimates, the town can’t build its arguments for the hearing.

The Nov. 7 meeting lasted beyond midnight. The seven DRB members voted to overturn Bannon’s decision to deny a building permit for one Melrose building, #230, which contains six apartments.

The rebuilding costs that the housing authority provided the board for the remaining four buildings, however, were “not adequate” to meet the burden of proof to justify overturning the zoning administrator’s decision entirely, said DRB chair Tim Cuthbertson.

In the DRB’s eyes, despite multiple cost estimates compiled by Brunelle, the BHA had not proved that four Melrose buildings fell below FEMA’s 50-percent threshold for substantial damage to the four buildings and their 20 apartments.

The BHA believes the buildings fall under the 50-percent threshold based on a second assessment completed by Dart Everrett, and new feet-on-the-ground estimates by Brunelle.

The BHA also maintains that the town’s assessment of the value of the Melrose Terrace buildings of $30,000 per apartment was low, said Houghton.

According to a spreadsheet from the Planning Department, the estimated cost to repair the flood damage to the five buildings ranges between 41.6 percent and 49.9 percent of the property value that Everett calculated.

Bannon had denied the permits in accordance with the town’s Special Flood Hazard ordinance and FEMA’s NFIP.

Under those rules, buildings exceeding 50 percent of their fair-market value must comply with local zoning and flood prevention upgrades.

“Substantially damaged” buildings within a municipality’s special flood hazard area (SFHA) must meet flood proofing codes.

A portion of Melrose Terrace falls into Brattleboro SFHA, and according to a town ordinance, residential buildings within a floodway cannot be rebuilt after receiving a substantially damaged determination.

The NFIP allows towns, and their residents, to receive flood insurance. All buildings within a participating municipality, however, must comply with NFIP regulations or the entire municipality runs the risk of losing coverage.

According to Houghton, some of the 26 residents have found new housing. Others are staying in hotels primarily at the BHA’s expense or with family.

‘Hallelujah’

Resident Laura Austan has returned home, to her apartment in the one building of the original five that was cleared for use. She said she received notice that she could move back to Melrose on Nov. 11.

“Yes, hallelujah, I’m back in Melrose,” she wrote in an email. “It’s been wild moving back in. Some of my belongings are still out there, but I don’t care about complications.”

“I’m home. I’ve got my [original] little apartment back.”

She said she couldn’t explain what a “relief” it was to be home again.

Of returning home, Austan said, “I smiled, a lot. It seemed somewhat unreal. After all the stress and upheaval, it was two days before I relaxed here. Now I’m just very, very tired.”

The repairs Austan could spot included painting and new drywall close to the floor. The cabinets and appliances “look exactly the same,” she said.

Austan said the mood at Melrose “is tired but happy. And very peaceful. We’ve all been through a lot. There’s a lot of laughter on the street these days.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #128 (Wednesday, November 23, 2011).

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