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Even After Irene, River Development Restrictions Draw Opposition

Many Vermonters enjoy living close to the state’s beautiful rivers and streams. But the Agency of Natural Resources is helping cities and towns consider whether they want to give waterways more room to move and flood by restricting development. But even talk of restrictions can stir up opposition.

Chris Campany, the director of the Windham Regional Commission is sitting next to Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro which flooded the streets during Tropical Storm Irene. Campany said the power of waterways like this one inspired the earliest development in Vermont. 

"The village grew up around the factories,” said Campany. “And the factories grew up near the rivers and streams."

Today planners, like Campany, say Vermonters need to weigh the risks of living and working next to water. Campany said since Tropical Storm Irene the stream beds have spread wider and are now susceptible to even more change.

“These streams are a bit like children now,” said Campany. “You generally know where the channel is when it’s flowing on a given day. But in a high water event that channel is likely to move somewhere within that Fluvial Erosion Hazard Zone. And you don’t really know, precisely, where it’s going to go. That’s what we try to help towns understand  and predict."

The regional planning commissions are helping cities and towns find funding to map fluvial erosion hazard zones, also known as  river corridors. Municipalities can then consider whether to restrict development there. Campany said the goal is to reduce loss of life and property in future floods.

"Just because a house hasn’t flooded in a hundred years or worse, the land underneath that house hasn’t washed down stream and the house with it in a hundred years, doesn’t mean it won’t happen!"

Twenty-one towns have approved river corridor zoning by-laws in the past decade or so. Right now Plymouth and Burke are considering them.  Some towns are just beginning to talk about it, like Woodford.

Most of the houses in this small town are located within earshot of the Roaring Branch of the Walloomsac River, on Route 9 in a neighborhood known as  ‘The Hollow.’ The water follows the road, winding between two steep walls of mountains. River Scientist Shannon Pytlick, with the state’s Agency of Natural Resources, points to the far bank to show what would be included in a river corridor here.

"From about where those trees are all the way over to the tree-line over here, where the bank  starts to get steep,” she said. “It includes the river itself as well as the adjacent  floodplain, over to the route 9 road."

Pytlik says mapping a river corridor includes getting your boots wet.

“We walk the entire stretch of the river and take lots of measurements about where there is erosion, where there is good floodplain access,” said Pytlik.  “And that gives us an idea of how stable that channel is  and how susceptible it is to change to either floods or changes within the watershed.”

Once the corridor is mapped the community can take another step: implement zoning by-laws that would restrict development in the river corridor. Ed Shea of Woodford’s Planning Commission says he has more to learn about the river corridors, but he believes building restrictions are needed.

"To protect the individuals, to protect the community and to protect those who are down stream."

Toni Lake has lived between Route 9 and the Roaring Branch in Woodford for 37 years, right next to a house that was destroyed on the day of the flood.

"Our house was literally sitting in the middle of the river,” she said.

Her house survived, but the landscape changed. What was once wooded is open, the river is wider, and sand from the flood still coats her property. Lake wants to make some improvements to it now.

"I would like to put a garage here,” said Lake. “But if we wait too long and this river corridor is adopted we might be prohibited."

So far the town has not adopted river corridor by-laws that would include development restrictions. But a river corridor plan prepared for the Bennington County Conservation District suggests, in the long-term, possible buy-outs of some flood-damaged properties that are vulnerable to further erosion. There’s no money to buy any one out right now. There’s no plan adopted by the town. But resident Toni Lake is concerned about it. And she isn’t worried about another Irene.

“It was a fluke and whether or not  that could happen again nobody can predict,” said Lake. “But to tell me you’re going to protect me from the possibility and if it never happens then all that protection does is limit me from being able to do anything with my property "

Back in Brattleboro, Chris Campany says rather than regulations he wonders if a public education campaign might work better, like a Smokey the bear ad.

"Respect rivers and streams, admire their beauty, enjoy them,” said Campany. “But be aware of what power they have and make your own decisions about how wise is to develop close to them."

In other words, love the rivers and streams, but give them room.

That’s not an easy choice for those who own property  and love it right next to rivers, even if they've lived through a terrible flood.

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