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From housing to home

Group begins exploring options to address Brattleboro housing needs from fire and flood

BRATTLEBORO—The Whetstone Housing Alternative committee, charged with filling an immediate need for affordable housing brought on by the Brooks House fire and Tropical Storm Irene, held its first public meeting June 7.

According to Brattleboro Housing Authority (BHA) Executive Director Christine Hart, Brattleboro needs 250 affordable housing units, and that number does not include housing needs for those not affected by fire or flood.

Spurred by Irene’s severe flooding and permitting issues at its Melrose Terrace property, and the advancing age of its Hayes Court property, the BHA has launched a project to develop 150 new affordable housing units.

The Whetstone Housing Alternative study process kicked off in April with a series of committee meetings. The group consists of 14 members representing the BHA, Windham/Windsor Housing Trust, the town, Windham Regional Commission, Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing, the West Brattleboro Association, and residents from Melrose Terrace and the Glen Park Mobile Home Park.

The June 7 meeting — the first of three public meetings it will hold — focused on introducing the project, taking the public’s questions, and responding to concerns.

Stevens & Associates Engineering of Brattleboro is providing the project committee with guidance, planning, design, and site reviews. More than 50 people packed the Melrose Terrace Community Room to hear the plans for a future affordable housing complex.

Questions from the audience included:

• Will the BHA demolish Melrose and Hayes?

• Will they rebuild on the same plots in West Brattleboro?

• Can’t the authority build higher flood walls?

• Why can’t the authority reroute the river?

• Will there be one big complex or a lot of little ones?

• A high rise or houses?

It’s too early to give answers to these questions, said Hart and Adam Hubbard, a project manager with Stevens & Associates.

But at this stage, Hart said, everything is on the table, and suggestions are welcome.

The project comes with a 3-to-5-year timeline, said Hubbard.

“The best product is a product of a community,” he said.

According to Hubbard, the project committee has developed goals for the new housing units and hopes the public will provide its own definition of a successful affordable housing complex.

Over the next few weeks, the committee will review possible construction sites.

The next public meeting, on July 12, will present site reviews. The committee will pare down the list of potential sites to a handful worthy of deeper studies, said Hubbard.

The new complex must benefit the residents and the larger community, work with the environment, and meet regulatory conditions, he said.

Melrose functions as “pretty good urban design” despite Irene’s damaging Aug. 28 flooding, Hubbard said. He described the units as well built and fostering community. But, he said, it was constructed in the wrong location. Melrose sits in the Whetstone Brook’s floodplain.

Before last August, the BHA had started a redesign to replace Hayes Court with an affordable assisted living complex. The authority shifted its gears to focus on both properties after Irene.

State river scientists have told Hart that, during Irene, a debris dam grew near a three-acre empty space at Hayes. The water cut a new route through Glen Park and back toward Melrose.

A sadness

The redesigned Melrose Terrace and Hayes Court will include 150 new affordable housing units, said Hart and Hubbard.

“There’s a real problem and there’s a real opportunity,” said Hubbard. “These are homes. It’s really important we don’t lose sight of that.”

Glen Park representative Carol Petty said she survived the flooding with less damage than her neighbors. “I’m still not sure where my skirting went,” she joked.

Still, she said her “heart breaks” when she thinks of her neighbors.

“This is their life that they lost,” she said referring to irreplaceable items such as photos and family possessions.

“Some aspects, there is no recovering from,” said Glen Park resident Mary Durland.

According to Durland, Irene has had a powerful effect on the 33 Glen Park residents, contributing to one death, two heart attacks, two strokes, one nervous breakdown, and sending three people to nursing homes.

Looking at the 10 empty spots where homes once stood, Durland said, “I thought I was pretty tough but it’s a sadness.”

“There will never be the wholeness that there was,” she said.

Hubbard told the audience that, under federal regulations, portions of Melrose Terrace fall into the heavily regulated part of the floodplain known as the floodway. During a flood, the floodway contains the strongest current. Water can easily sweep things downstream.

“It’s an off-limits zone,” said Hubbard. “Unfortunately [with Melrose] there’s housing.”

Six Melrose housing units sit in the Whetstone’s floodway.

The zone next to the floodway, the flood fringe or 100-year floodplain, allows development with conditions such as constructing buildings above the base flood elevation, said Hubbard.

A bit of a misnomer, the 100-year floodplain refers to an area that has a one in 100 chance of flooding in any given year.

Melrose Terrace sits in the the 100-year floodplain and below base flood elevation, said Hubbard. Property owners could meet regulations by raising their buildings above flood level. Melrose’s homes, built strong on concrete slabs, don’t easily lift, he said.

Melrose is “not in an acquire and demolish” situation yet, Hubbard said. But floodplain regulations do restrict funding.

According to Hubbard, Windham County has not seen a 100-year-flood. Irene counted as an 85-year flood. The infamous 1938 hurricane and flood didn’t count as a 100-year-flood either.

“The hard truth of the matter is this is a floodplain and it’s hard to develop housing [in this area],” Hubbard told the audience.

Unique land form

Vermont has different geography than other flood-prone areas of the country, Hubbard explained. The steep hills create fast moving streams and runoff prone to jumping banks.

Town Planning Department Director Roderick Francis added other parts of the United States commonly experience “inundation flooding.” The water slowly rises, sits for weeks, and then slowly drains away.

Vermont, however, experiences flooding that rages through an area, quickly taking eroded soil, boulders, and buildings along for the ride. These types of flooding damage the landscape differently and require different solutions, he said.

“[Response] is a one-size-fits-all program from FEMA,” said Francis.

Brattleboro has 60 units in the floodway that cannot be rebuilt, said Francis.

According to Francis, the town planning office started looking at the Whetstone in 2008. The department, he said, wanted to understand the brook’s dynamics. State river engineers had “shrugged their shoulders” saying “the big one” could wreak havoc.

The planning office, at it’s core, is about conflict, said Francis. The department looks to care for Brattleboro’s residents while it regulates people’s behavior, he said.

Irene acted as “a huge check in” for the town plan, Francis said.

The plan, a guiding document for how residents want the town to develop, lacked consideration for the hazards of flooding. Irene essentially “shredded” the chapters on housing, transportation, and land development, he said.

Living with the Whetstone and not in conflict with it poses a planning challenge for Brattleboro and West Brattleboro, Francis said.

Finding the best way

“Daunting,” said Hubbard of trying to construct 150 affordable housing units. The authority’s Samuel Elliot high-rise building on Elliot Street houses 62 units.

Hart said the construction may occur in phases starting with a parcel of four or five acres.

The funders’ ideal model, said Hart, is a big shoe box.

“We’re not looking to find the easiest route out,” said Hubbard of the task ahead, “but to find the best route out.”

Hart said that the committee hopes to find a solution that keeps Melrose as it stands.

“That’s very high on our list,” she said. “If we can do that, we want to.”

Hart and Francis assured the audience that early tensions between the town and BHA have cleared. The town denied the BHA building permits last year based on FEMA’s 50-percent calculation (a facility is considered repairable when disaster damages do not exceed 50 percent of the cost of replacing a facility to its predisaster condition). The two parties landed before the Development Review Board which overturned the town and allowed the permits.

“We have sort of gotten over it,” said Francis.

Hart said the BHA has the funders’ attention and their commitment to completing the project, which is good because housing authorities have to navigate among 11 state and federal agencies for any development project.

“It’s a lot of moving pieces,” she said.

An audience member asked if the BHA would close Melrose before completing the new site.

“We have not heard from HUD that they would do that,” said Hart.

She cautioned, however, that if something happened to the buildings in the floodway, the BHA may not have a choice but to move those residents to temporary housing.

A lot of the public comment focused on keeping Melrose and Hayes as they are, and controlling the Whetstone. Audience members floated options like building higher flood walls, or rerouting the brook through a huge culvert under Melrose.

Those options push the problem up or down stream, said Hubbard. This turns it into an “equity issue.”

Francis said a flood wall could work but only after considering multiple and complex factors.

People still digging out from Irene have asked this question before, and have received similar answers. In early May, a group of West Brattleboro residents walked the Whetstone with state River Management Engineer Todd Menees.

He pointed to where Irene’s flooding altered the brook creating sandbars, toppling trees, making narrow portions wide and making deep areas shallow.

Menees said the Whetstone will take years to recalibrate after Irene. He estimates that people will see big changes in the river, like falling trees and shifting sandbars, for another year. Smaller changes will continue for at least another five years.

He estimates he’s talked with 4,000 people since the storm, and most of them are frustrated and ask why he won’t let them fix the damaged rivers and fix them quickly.

“Where do you start, where do you stop, and who pays for it?” he asks. “[River stabilization] is a long-term process that you won’t see.”

Residents on the Whetstone river walk questioned Menees on how to best maintain or rebuild the Whetstone, how to better protect the buildings along the brook, and how Brattleboro could convince towns upstream to change their development to lessen potential flooding downstream in Brattleboro.

“Where’s the equity?” asked Menees. “That’s a tough nut.”

Watersheds don’t follow town lines, he said. Also, towns differ in zoning regulations, resources, and flood prevention measures.

“No matter where we live we have our conflict — nature does her thing and we get in the way,” said Menees. “Equity is a very hard part of the equation.”

Saving Melrose?

At the June 7 public meeting, Rhonda Jepson, who recently moved from Hayes to Melrose, would not accept the committee’s explanations.

“There is a way to save Melrose,” she said. “I will fight for my neighbors.”

“There’s no excuse not to save it,” Jepson said.

“If the stream wants this [Melrose] back, it will take it back,” responded Francis.

Francis laid down some cold, hard truths of the post-Irene permitting process. “We will no longer permit dwelling units in the the floodway,” said Francis.

He added that sooner or later the six Melrose buildings in the floodway will close because of these permitting rules. The BHA will not be allowed to make substantial improvements, or replace a building, because of age or a situation like fire.

“Sooner or later, something will need to happen with the homes at Melrose in the floodway,” Francis said.

The project committee plans to present potential building sites at a July 12 public meeting. A third public information meeting is scheduled for Aug. 23.

More information can be found at www.brattleborohousing.wordpress.com. Questions or comments can also be directed to Hubbard at ahubbard@stevens-assoc.com or 802-257-9329.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #156 (Wednesday, June 13, 2012).

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