Newfane at odds over three bridges

Town among many still struggling to rebuild Irene-damaged structures

NEWFANE — Towns across Vermont continue to wrestle with Tropical Storm Irene-related repairs and find themselves stuck, in the words of one town official here, between an abutment and the river.

Newfane has engaged a disaster management service, Storm Petrel of Halifax, to help it negotiate state and federal regulations on reimbursable costs of rebuilding.

The Lynch and Hickey Road bridges are moving forward relatively easily. A third project is more complex, but is on the list of projects the town has yet to complete.

The Lynch Bridge repair project was approached as a design-build project, but the town discovered that, although it might satisfy FEMA regulations, that approach did not satisfy state regulations.

The town decided during the Jan. 17 meeting to close out the bids for the design-build project that Storm Petrel was managing, go back to square one, and get a designer to draw up plans.

Selectboard Chair Jon Mack explained the history of that project:

“You would think it would be a straightforward process to simply rebuild the bridge, but we've run into numerous issues already,” he said.

After FEMA essentially rejected the design-build approach - by never fully approving it - Mack asked the state representative of Emergency Assistance to find out what FEMA would reimburse.

“We don't know what we need. We're not experts,” Mack said. “Facing a long and painful process, we didn't want to get stuck with a huge piece of the cost (of repairs). We wanted to get a read on what method FEMA (would reimburse).”

The answer: First get a design and then put it out to bid. FEMA apparently is a lot clearer about accepting or rejecting projects after they've been designed, “Although they never clearly reject or accept anything,” Mack said.

At this point, the town is on the alternate tack for the Lynch Bridge project. The board told Storm Petrel to draw up an RFP for review for the design, and the board will take that up at the next meeting.

The second project the town is negotiating is the Hickey Road project, another tricky proposition.

It's a relatively small bridge over a river, and Irene knocked it out, Mack said. As the river changed course with the flood, he said, the bridge might have to be lengthened. At issue is the length of the bridge.

“We want to repair it, and FEMA initially obligated about $19,000 for the repair, but we can't rebuild it for that amount,” Mack explained.

FEMA agreed to restore it to the way it was before the storm, but given to changes to the riverbed, the project needs to accommodate a longer span than FEMA allocated.

In discussion, board members noted that to rebuild the bridge as the state is calling for, the bridge would require a greater investment: as much as $75,000 greater.

“That's a lot of money from the perspective of a small town,” Mack said. “FEMA is allocating a much smaller amount of money than it would take to do the job in the way the state wants, to do a good job.”

And as municipalities must comply with state rules, many towns in Vermont are experiencing what Newfane is going through. They're caught between the state and FEMA regulations, with the state insisting on one thing and FEMA another.

Mack told the board that he felt the town was caught “between an abutment and a river.”

FEMA pays 90 percent on this disaster, and the state essentially pays 5 percent of everything. However the state has made an additional positive limit on costs to the towns of 3 percent of the town's grand list.

For Newfane, the maximum share of what's left after FEMA reimbursements is about $81,000 for the local share of the total of fully reimbursable expenses.

“We're way above the limit,” Mack said. And he said that is creating huge issues when it comes to Newfane, or any Vermont town, setting their budgets as they both close out the books on fiscal year 2012 and project out for 2013-14.

“We don't know where we really stand,” Mack said.

Mack said they have taken those costs into account for the upcoming budget. Projected unpaid reimbursements would call for an estimated $125,000. Voters will be asked to approve this contingency expense at Town Meeting March 5.

Cell tower update

Following a conversation among Mack, an AT&T attorney, and the Vermont Public Service Board, PSB has agreed to hire an independent consultant.

At issue is Newfane's desire to consider sites for the cell tower other than in a populated neighborhood, as AT&T now proposes. With the 21 day comment period elapsed, and the report not yet in, Mack requested the PSB allow an extension.

“Make no mistake, we want a cell tower,” Mack said. “But we wanted the PSB to allow us to consider a more appropriate site.”

“Due consideration” of aesthetic considerations, but not alternative sites, is within the PSB's purview. So while the town awaits the report, it may or may not want to comment, as the board is not going to consider alternatives to AT&T's proposed site.

“Although the process on paper is designed to respect municipal interests, in practice, whether it's the law or how it's implemented I couldn't say, our input is really minimal,” Mack said.

Town Plan public hearing

The Town Plan has been updated with the most current statistics, said Town Planner Tristam Johnson. No text, intent, plan, or strategy was changed, Johnson said.

The process was initiated two to three years ago with the intent of possibly changing some bylaws, Johnson noted.

He said a public hearing on the Town Plan is set for March 25. From there the plan advances to the Selectboard for additional discussion.

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