Commission grapples with future of flood regulations
WILMINGTON — When it comes to the controversial flood regulations rejected by the Select Board last month, Planning Commission members are trying to decide their next move.
"I think the hurdle you have, and it's not unique to Wilmington, is the feeling from a number of people that it was like eminent domain and over-regulation by local government," Town Manager Scott Tucker told the Planning Commission during its meeting Monday. "I don't know how you overcome that."
Most of the controversy appears to be over the commission's initial proposals to regulate development, such as establishing a "river corridor" and certain construction requirements when building in a floodplain.
Tucker said he did not think the commission did anything wrong in the process. He suggested that having a conversation with the Select Board about what projects to focus on in the new year might be helpful.
Leading up to the commission's proposal had been revisions to the town plan and zoning ordinances. Then the commission began looking into updating its flood bylaw.
The efforts had in part been based on public feedback during a community meeting in 2015 or 2016. Commission member John Lebron said one of the desired goals of citizens was to make the town more flood resilient, which made its way into the town plan. Downtown Wilmington was hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Cheryl LaFlamme said she believes her group focused too much on negative impacts of the regulations during the last two years of working on getting the "right bylaw." She suggested changing the approach if the subject comes up again after annual Town Meeting in March, something commission members have spoken in favor of doing.
Commission members have shown a desire to keep pushing for part of their proposal. That would require any new residential construction in the floodplain to be 2 feet higher than the base flood elevation, which is a computed measurement based on where waters are expected to rise in a major flooding event that has only a 1 percent chance of being matched or exceeded in intensity in any given year.
Commission members are considering scrapping the establishment of a "river corridor," which would allow Wilmington to get 5 percent more in reimbursement funds for recovery from the state through the Emergency Relief Assistance Fund. The drawback is that development within the corridor would be limited. In areas along smaller streams with watersheds of 2 square miles or less, the proposed ordinance included a 50-foot setback from the top of the riverbank for any new construction.
LaFlamme said she expects the state to eventually have river corridor requirements.
"It's going to come," she said. "It's ultimately going to be mandated."
The state uses river corridor mapping when considering permits. That is intended to help manage rivers toward "a state of dynamic equilibrium," according to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation's website.
"River corridors encompass an area around and adjacent to a river where fluvial erosion, channel evolution and down-valley meander migration are most likely to occur," the website states. "River corridor widths are calculated to represent the narrowest band of valley bottom and riparian land necessary to accommodate the least erosive channel and floodplain geometry (i.e. equilibrium conditions) that would be created and maintained naturally within a given valley setting."
LaFlamme described herself as being disappointed by Select Board member Ann Manwaring, who had been expected to vote in favor of updating the ordinance but changed her mind after conversation at the meeting.
"That really bothers me because we maybe had four or five people who were speaking against it and the majority of those people had never been at a meeting before," LaFlamme said, adding that there had been several meetings related to the proposal earlier last year and Vermont Agency of Natural Resources floodplain manager John Broker-Campbell went through river corridor maps with property owners to see how they would be affected. LaFlamme said she wished people who had been relieved after speaking with Broker-Campbell attended the meeting where the Select Board voted 4-0 to reject the proposal.
Commission member Meg Staloff said the intent of the proposal had been to prevent losses in areas prone to erosion damage and protect properties. She described property owners as being worried that the town was trying to control their property.
The commission was "talking about building to higher standards in flood zones ... so that it can withstand the next flood or be less likely to be damaged," Staloff said. "That's not negative. That's not a punitive action."
While Staloff said very few properties would be strongly affected by the proposal, she still suggested conducting "a deeper analysis." More than 180 properties were anticipated to be affected.
Town Zoning Administrator Mike Tuller said he received about 20 phone calls about the proposal.
"Most of them, we went to through the steps and I explained the buffers and such, and most didn't have an issue," he said. "They wanted to make sure that there wasn't a concern on their specific parcel. I saw maybe six parcels that might be compromised in my review, where you couldn't move a building around. Now, granted the property owner might not like where that placement might be but they would have the ability to move secondary structures on their property if they so chose in 95 percent of the cases."
Commission member Angela Yakovleff said listers told the commission the proposed regulations would not change the assessed values of their properties. But restrictions could affect sales, said Gretchen Havreluk, the town's economic development consultant.
'WHAT'S YOUR GOAL?'
LaFlamme said she still feels it is important to have new flood regulations. But without the Select Board's support, she worried a new proposal might be a waste of time.
"So I don't know if the best way to do this is to sit down and say, 'What's your goal? Where do you want to go with this?'" she said.
Commission members suggested the town plan might need to be revised based on such a conversation. They also noted that Sarah Fisher, Select Board liaison to the commission, cannot attend their 4 p.m. meetings.
LaFlamme said she also had been disappointed by a comment made by Select Board Vice Chairman John Gannon, who also serves as state representative for the Windham-6 District.
"While I respect the hard work the Planning Commission did in drafting the flood regulations, they dropped the ball on doing outreach to the landowners impacted by the regulations," he said in an email to the Reformer last month.
LaFlamme recalled reaching out to property owners who might be affected via telephone to let them know about the proposal. She said the commission went "above and beyond" to get the word out.
Havreluk said citizens have a lot of influence over the board's actions.
"If you're going to move forward in this way, I think, A, it's too soon, B, I think you need to get accurate maps," she told the commission, referring to an issue that came up during meetings. "I think you need to go to those vulnerable properties and have ANR take a look at those properties."
Havreluk expressed concern about property owners suddenly having "unbuildable lots" then skipping tax payments and the town having to take over land that cannot be sold.
LaFlamme said ANR representatives would come meet with individual property owners with concerns, but the town would need a grant for a bigger outreach project with the agency.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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